Undercounting Covid-19 Deaths?

These figures indicate that we are experiencing a serious global health crisis that is, empirically, a deviation from the norm.

As I noted the other day, there are reasons to think that deaths from Covid-19 are being undercounted. The reasons for this include lack of testing, but also just the fact that when people die there are often multiple possible causes (hence the discussion of “flu-related death”) and classification can be complicated (especially with a new disease).

The NYT has some numbers that suggest, yes, there are some missing numbers from the official counts: 28,000 Missing Deaths:
Tracking the True Toll of the Coronavirus Crisis

At least 28,000 more people have died during the coronavirus pandemic over the last month than the official Covid-19 death counts report, a review of mortality data in 11 countries shows — providing a clearer, if still incomplete, picture of the toll of the crisis.

In the last month, far more people died in these countries than in previous years, The New York Times found. The totals include deaths from Covid-19 as well as those from other causes, likely including people who could not be treated as hospitals became overwhelmed.

New York City alone accounts for 4,000 of the deaths in question.

The article has graphs and data, which I recommend. Clearly something is going on and runs counter to the “we are over-counting the deaths” hypothesis that some are promoting.

It is certainly possible that some of these deaths are the result of causes other than Covid-19, but are related to the pandemic because of lack of access to other medical services or people failing to seek medical help due to fear of contracting the virus.

It is unusual for mortality data to be released so quickly, demographers say, but many countries are working to provide more comprehensive and timely information because of the urgency of the coronavirus outbreak. The data is limited and, if anything, excess deaths are underestimated because not all deaths have been reported.

At a minimum, these figures indicate that we are experiencing a serious global health crisis that is, empirically, a deviation from the norm.

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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


  1. Jen says:

    The “we are over-counting covid-19 deaths” was always an illogical argument. I read this piece earlier today and we are almost certainly under-counting covid-19 deaths, and by how much will vary not just from country to country, but even hospital to hospital.

    We are still learning about this disease, which is why it makes no sense at all to relax social distancing guidelines now. We are apparently a nation with a sizeable population that must stick a hand in the fire to determine that it’s indeed hot.

  2. steve says:

    ProPublica did a nice piece on this. We have seen a lot fewer admissions for strokes and MIs. Not really sure what is going on but we think people are riding it out home and either dying or living through their event and will live with the resulting disability.



  3. Liberal Capitalist says:

    A friend that leans conservative just suggested that they are being overcounted.

    Heart attack stroke cancer… these are people that were going to die. If they test positive for C-19, then it’s C-19 reported as the cause.

    From his perspective, pre-existing conditions should not count toward C-19 deaths.

    ad absurdum: Since we are all going to die someday, then the 45,000 deaths are CLEARLY overcounted.

  4. Lynn says:

    And then there the state senator (MN) who has gotten a lot of attention ” after calling into question federal guidelines for attributing deaths to COVID-19.” He’s claiming that MDs are being encouraged to attribute deaths to Covid-19 which may not be.

    He’s very popular with the QAnon conspiracy nuts, as well as with some other groups; however, he’s now saying “”I think that things are being taken out of context.”

  5. Kylopod says:

    I have Covid-19, and like most New Yorkers with it I have not been tested and I won’t show up in any of the official statistics. It’s very hard to get the test in New York–basically you have to have been in contact with a known carrier (which is kind of a self-reinforcing loop as the more people there are who can’t be tested, the fewer people there will be who are eligible to take the test). And not only am I untested, but I’ve been told from the beginning that it was unlikely I was going to get to see a doctor in person unless I went to an ER, which I was advised not to do unless my condition gets really bad. There are thousands of New Yorkers in the same boat as me. Since health-care facilities are being flooded and the majority of people with the virus do not require hospitalization, people with symptoms are mostly being instructed to stay home. And that’s not even counting asymptomatic carriers, or those whose symptoms are indistinguishable from other illnesses. The true number of New Yorkers infected with the virus is almost certainly vastly higher than what is being reported.

  6. Kathy says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    I find it incredible in the middle of a disaster, so many on the right are trying to nit-pick the data to make the pile of corpses look better than it does.

  7. Mister Bluster says:

    @Kathy:..nit-pick the data to make the pile of corpses look better than it does.

    Republican Death Panels…

  8. Kylopod says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    Republican Death Panels…

    You can leave out the word “Republican” there, since there never were any “Democratic death panels” (let alone “Democrat death panels”) to begin with. As always, every single piece of crap Republicans ever accused Democrats of–without exception–has been nothing but pure projection. Every single one. Seriously. If you lived in a cave you could get a highly accurate list of all the crimes Republicans are guilty of by simply taking every single accusation they’ve lobbed at Dems and replacing the latter with the word “Republican.”

    And I really shouldn’t use the word “projection” because that makes it sound like it’s unconscious when in fact it’s nothing short of a deliberate misinformation campaign perpetrated for decades on a massive scale. The entire Republican agenda in the modern age is built on lies–pure, unadulterated, Orwellian lies that shamelessly invert reality and present each party’s policies as the literal, polar opposite of what they actually are.

  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    At a minimum, these figures indicate that we are experiencing a serious global health crisis that is, empirically, a deviation from the norm.

    No shit Steven. (sarcasm not directed at you but rather all the “reopen the economy” idiots out there.

    Thank you.

  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Mister Bluster: Pro life my ass.

  11. Mister Bluster says:

    Attorney General William “Bumfuck” Barr, who wants to sue Governors over “stay at home” directives can serve as chairman of the Republican Death Panel.

    Texas Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick…”there are more important things than living” can serve as the Republican Death Panel’s toe tagger whose responsibility it will be to notify the next of kin of the passing of their loved ones and explain to them just how important they are to the economy now that they are dead.

  12. Jen says:

    Here’s another reason deaths are most likely under-, rather than over-counted:

    Autopsies find first U.S. coronavirus death occurred in early February, weeks earlier than previously thought