In the early weeks of the coronavirus epidemic, the United States recorded an estimated 15,400 excess deaths, nearly two times as many as were publicly attributed to covid-19 at the time, according to an analysis of federal data conducted for The Washington Post by a research team led by the Yale School of Public Health. The excess deaths — the number beyond what would normally be expected for that time of year — occurred during March and through April 4, a time when 8,128 coronavirus deaths were reported.
The analysis calculates excess deaths by using a model to estimate how many people probably would have died absent the pandemic, and then subtracting that number from the overall deaths reported by the NCHS.
The excess deaths are not necessarily attributable directly to covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. They could include people who died because of the epidemic but not from the disease, such as those who were afraid to seek medical treatment for unrelated illnesses, as well as some number of deaths that are part of the ordinary variation in the death rate. The count is also affected by decreases in other categories of deaths, such as suicides, homicides and motor vehicle accidents.
But in any pandemic, higher-than-normal mortality is a starting point for scientists seeking to understand the full impact of the disease.
The Yale analysis for the first time estimates excess deaths relying on data that the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), the analysis paints a picture of unusually high mortality that will come into sharper view as more data becomes available.
The analysis suggests that the deaths announced in the weeks leading up to April 4, based on reports from state public health departments, failed to capture the full impact of the pandemic. The analysis also suggests that the death toll from the pandemic is significantly higher than has been reported, said Daniel Weinberger, a Yale professor of epidemiology and the leader of the research team.
The national tally also shapes the public’s perception of how serious the disease is, and therefore how necessary it is to continue social distancing despite economic disruption. The figure has political implications for President Trump, who initially played down the threat of the virus and whose administration failed to ramp up covid-19 testing quickly, allowing the virus to spread undetected for weeks.
The problem of undercounting coronavirus deaths is not unique to this pandemic or to the United States. Insufficient testing is a major obstacle to understanding the scale of the pandemic.