More on the Likely Undercount of Covid-19 Deaths

Data collection and analysis takes time.

As has been noted multiple times here at OTB, the likelihood is that the current death counts for Covid-19 deaths are an undercount, not an overcount. This is simply because of the uncertainties associated with trying to collect data in the middle of an unfolding crisis as well as the ways the current official count was constructed (i.e., how specific deaths have been coded and why).

I noted about a week ago a NYT piece that demonstrated spikes in death in various countries around the world that have only partially be accounted for in official Covid-19 death totals. They have done a similar analysis of some US states: U.S. Coronavirus Death Toll Is Far Higher Than Reported, C.D.C. Data Suggests.

Total deaths in seven states that have been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic are nearly 50 percent higher than normal for the five weeks from March 8 through April 11, according to new death statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That is 9,000 more deaths than were reported as of April 11 in official counts of deaths from the coronavirus.

No doubt some will claim that this is just an attempt by pro-stay-at-home types to justify the economic damage that has been wrought (I expect, for example, Britt Hume will do so, as he seems to be leading the charge on Twitter and on FNC against stay-at-home).

Regardless, this is basic analysis. It is comparing one dataset (death in general) with current coding of a subset of that data (counting Covid-19 deaths). The number of dead is the number of dead regardless of anything else and a spike in death, especially a pronounced one across space, is a real thing even if we don’t know why.

But logic dictates that in the midst of a global pandemic, a substantial amount of the unaccounted for spike is very likely because of said pandemic. Why else would there be this large a spike?

Sure, some it is potentially the result of people not seeking medical treatment for fear of contracting the coronavirus or because some elective healthcare is not available. Further analysis will eventually allow us to make this determination. But, again, what is more likely: that most of these deaths are from the current active pandemic or they are the result of lowered access to elective medical care?

I would note, again, some causes of death, specifically automobile deaths, have to be down nationally at the moment (the stay-at-home orders in California alone have got to have resulted in decrease vehicular death). Given that automobile deaths are one of the top causes of death in the US, a diminution in this area at the same time as a spike in unaccounted for deaths leads back to the pandemic as a likely cause.

One thing is for sure: assuming that the data are accurate, something is killing more people than normal. And while some politicians may think there are some things more important than living, the reality is that one of the reasons to have government (and, indeed, society more generally) is to increase our chances of living.

FILED UNDER: COVID-19
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Jay L Gischer says:

    The notion of protection (from marauding bands of Vikings) is what I was taught gave rise to the feudal system of government. A government which cannot or will not protect its people is not seen as legitimate by many, if not all.

    I’m not sure why they are driving down this road.

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  2. mattbernius says:

    Again, I think it’s really important to state that the people overseeing this work are not simply making their methodologies up on the spot. These are people who have been doing this work for decades.

    It’s important to note that because it means that when we lay folks wonder “Have they taken X into consideration?” chances are that they have (and have been doing that for years). That isn’t to say there are no new takes on old questions. But as with any well-developed field, the chances that some rando off the street (or political commentator on the web) is going to identify something completely new.

    Put a different way, when was the last time a new hire, fresh out of college or high school completely upended and revolutionized your business with some down-home, folksey common sense and a simple question?

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  3. @mattbernius: Agreed all around.

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  4. Gustopher says:

    @mattbernius:

    Put a different way, when was the last time a new hire, fresh out of college or high school completely upended and revolutionized your business with some down-home, folksey common sense and a simple question?

    I think that happens a lot, actually. Owner’s kid graduates with a gentleman’s C from business school, comes into the family business, has all sorts of ideas, and upends everything. Revolutions often don’t go well.

    In this case, the impacts of social distancing are way bigger than the impacts of the usual second order considerations, and I would question the models. A lot of things that would be nearly statistically insignificant in the past are probably quite significant now. I don’t pretend to have better models than the experts, but I expect that there will be work for statisticians for years, trying to tease out the effects of social distancing based on different states with different policies and different rates of infection.

    My only real prediction is that pajama pants are here to stay. They won’t be called pajama pants, and they won’t look quite as pajama-pantsy as what people are wearing, but people will not want to go back to hard pants, and the fashion industry will meet this need.

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  5. Kingdaddy says:

    The governor of Florida is making the picture even murkier by suppressing information about COVID-related deaths.

    https://www.tampabay.com/news/health/2020/04/29/florida-medical-examiners-were-releasing-coronavirus-death-data-the-state-made-them-stop/

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  6. inhumans99 says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    Indeed. Politico says that President Trump has enjoyed pivoting to talking about putting America back to work and not talking about the Covid but I can’t help but picture the very funny scene from The Naked Gun (which is also a well used meme) where Leslie Nielsen is telling everyone to move on with their business as there is nothing to pay attention too all the while 50 different explosions are happening in the background. Such a meme worthy scene decades before memes became a thing.

    Also, surprised that Southern Politicians are so quick to get behind shielding businesses from lawsuits of folks who fall ill on the job and it turns out to be say…being infected by the Covid virus. While these politicians are not technically saying we should be forced into slave labor, I feel that they are saying that if your ass is told to get to work you get to work or no money/unemployment money for you snowflake and just go home and die. It is kind of surreal how many politicians are not thinking this through…forcing people to work to make Bezos (see, if Guarneri could still post he could see that I like to gore the ox of my own side as much as that of Conservatives) even more filthy rich while they are scared of well…literally scared of actually dying, is just all kinds of cuckoo bananas nuts.

    There has to be a better more nuanced discussion of how to make America go to work other than President Trump going on Fox news and telling us that all you peons have to go to work for my rich friends because I am your President and you have to listen to me. Again…just head shakingly insane that McConnell, at the very least is not coming up with a better plan to ease us back into the new normal other than yelling at us to get back to work.

    ETA: I should have put this post in one of the Open Threads but instead of double posting in an Open Discussion thread I will just let this post stand and not further derail the actual subject of this post.

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  7. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Gustopher:

    I think that happens a lot, actually. Owner’s kid graduates with a gentleman’s C from business school, comes into the family business, has all sorts of ideas, and upends everything. Revolutions often don’t go well.

    Kind of like Tiny taking over his father’s real estate business.

    We’ll be into the Biden administration before the CDC will be providing accurate numbers, at present too many politicians have a vested interest in obscuring the true number of deaths.

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  8. Barry says:

    @inhumans99: “Also, surprised that Southern Politicians are so quick to get behind shielding businesses from lawsuits of folks who fall ill on the job and it turns out to be say…being infected by the Covid virus. ”

    I’m only mildly surprised, because I underestimated the depth of their depravity.

    As for slavery, if they could bring it back, they would.

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  9. MarkedMan says:

    Talking Points Memo has a good roundup with good links of what we know about excess deaths.

  10. mattbernius says:

    @mattbernius:

    But as with any well-developed field, the chances that some rando off the street (or political commentator on the web) is going to identify something completely new.

    … is slim to none.

    Dag nabbit… almost made it through that without a typo.

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @inhumans99: @Barry: I am not surprised at all.

    @mattbernius: Can’t speak for everybody else, but I filled in the blank.

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  12. mattbernius says:

    BTW, for those deeply interested in this topic, this article in the Atlantic is an incedibly well sourced deep dive on the topic of “what we know and don’t know” on C19 (and a geneology of that knowledge).

    https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/04/pandemic-confusing-uncertainty/610819/

    (Trigger warning to the “just asking common sense question types” you may not enjoy that read).

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  13. Michael Cain says:

    Tangential on driving… When I was out today, the number of vehicles was down substantially from several weeks ago. OTOH, people appear to me to be getting much sloppier. Drifting out of lanes, for example, was up substantially from what I remember.

  14. EddieInCA says:

    Rescue me from moderation, please.

  15. grumpy realist says:

    @mattbernius: Thanks much for posting that article. I’m starting to think that no one should be allowed to publish any story on coronavirus unless he demonstrates a knowledge of statistics and scientific measurements….