'Profound Human Toll' in Excess Deaths From COVID-19 Calculated in Two Studies

Damian McNamara

October 12, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

More than 225,000 excess deaths occurred in the United States from March to July 2020 compared to historic norms, with approximately two thirds directly attributable to COVID-19. However, additional deaths could be indirectly related because people avoided emergency care during the pandemic, new research shows.

Deaths linked to COVID-19 varied by state and phase of the pandemic, as reported in a study from researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University and Yale University that was published online October 12 in JAMA.

Another study published online simultaneously in JAMA took more of an international perspective. Investigators from the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University found that in America, there were more excess deaths and there was higher all-cause mortality during the pandemic than in 18 other countries.

Although the ongoing number of deaths attributable to COVID-19 continues to garner attention, there can be a lag of weeks or months in how long it takes some public health agencies to update their figures.

"For the public at large, the take-home message is twofold: that the number of deaths caused by the pandemic exceeds publicly reported COVID-19 death counts by 20%, and that states that reopened or lifted restrictions early suffered a protracted surge in excess deaths that extended into the summer," lead author of the US-focused study, Steven H. Woolf, MD, MPH, told Medscape Medical News.

The take-away for physicians is in the bigger picture ― it is likely that the COVID-19 pandemic is responsible for deaths from other conditions as well. "Surges in COVID-19 were accompanied by an increase in deaths attributed to other causes, such as heart disease and Alzheimer's disease and dementia," said Woolf, director emeritus and senior advisor at the Center on Society and Health and professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in Richmond, Virginia.

The investigators identified 225,530 excess US deaths in the 5 months from March to July. They report that 67% were directly attributable to COVID-19.

Deaths linked to COVID-19 included those in which the disease was listed as an underlying or contributing cause. US total death rates are "remarkably consistent" year after year, and the investigators calculated a 20% overall jump in mortality.

The study included data from the National Center for Health Statistics and the US Census Bureau for 48 states and the District of Columbia. Connecticut and North Carolina were excluded because of missing data.

Woolf and colleagues also found statistically higher rates of deaths from two other causes, heart disease and Alzheimer's disease/dementia.

Altered States

New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Louisiana, Arizona, Mississippi, Maryland, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Michigan had the highest per capita excess death rates. Three states experienced the shortest epidemics during the study period: New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

Some lessons could be learned by looking at how individual states managed large numbers of people with COVID-19. "Although we suspected that states that reopened early might have put themselves at risk of a pandemic surge, the consistency with which that occurred and the devastating numbers of deaths they suffered was a surprise," Woolf said.

"The goal of our study is not to look in the rearview mirror and lament what happened months ago but to learn the lesson going forward: our country will be unable to take control of this pandemic without more robust efforts to control community spread," Woolf said. "Our study found that states that did this well, such as New York and New Jersey, experienced large surges but bent the curve and were back to baseline in less than 10 weeks.

"If we could do this as a country, countless lives could be saved."

A Global Perspective

The United States experienced high mortality linked to COVID-19, as well as high all-cause mortality, compared to 18 other countries, as reported in the study by University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University researchers.

The United States ranked third, with 72 deaths per 100,000 people, among countries with moderate or high mortality. Although perhaps not surprising given the state of SARS-CoV-2 infection across the United States, a question remains as to what extent the relatively high mortality rate is linked to early outbreaks vs "poor long-term response," the researchers note.

Alyssa Bilinski, MSc, and lead author Ezekiel J. Emanuel, MD, PhD, chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia, calculated the difference in COVID-19 deaths among countries through Sepember 19, 2020. On this date, the United States reported a total 198,589 COVID-19 deaths.

They calculated that if the US death rates were similar to those in Australia, the United States would have experienced 187,661 fewer COVID-19 deaths. If similar to those of Canada, there would have been 117,622 fewer deaths in the United States.

The US death rate was lower than six other countries with high COVID-19 mortality in the early spring, including Belgium, Spain, and the United Kingdom. However, after May 10, the per capita mortality rate in the United States exceeded the others.

Between May 10 and September 19, the death rate in Italy was 9.1 per 100,000, vs 36.9 per 100,000.

"After the first peak in early spring, US death rates from COVID-19 and from all causes remained higher than even than countries with high COVID-19 mortality," the researchers note. "This may have been a result of several factors, including weak public health infrastructure and a decentralized, inconsistent US response to the pandemic."

"Mortifying and Motivating"

Woolf and colleagues estimate that more than 225,000 excess deaths occurred in recent months; this represents a 20% increase over expected deaths, note Harvey V. Fineberg, MD, PhD, of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, in an accompanying editorial in JAMA.

"Importantly, a condition such as COVID-19 can contribute both directly and indirectly to excess mortality," he writes.

Although the direct contribution to the mortality rates by those infected is straightforward, "the indirect contribution may relate to circumstances or choices due to the COVID-19 pandemic: for example, a patient who develops symptoms of a stroke is too concerned about COVID-19 to go to the emergency department, and a potentially reversible condition becomes fatal."

Fineberg notes that "a general indication of the death toll from COVID-19 and the excess deaths related to the pandemic, as presented by Woolf et al, are sufficiently mortifying and motivating."

"Profound Human Toll"

"The importance of the estimate by Woolf et al — which suggests that for the entirety of 2020, more than 400,000 excess deaths will occur — cannot be overstated, because it accounts for what could be declines in some causes of death, like motor vehicle crashes, but increases in others, like myocardial infarction," write Howard Bauchner, MD, editor-in-chief of JAMA, and Phil B. Fontanarosa, MD, MBA, executive editor of JAMA, in another accompanying editorial.

"These deaths reflect a true measure of the human cost of the Great Pandemic of 2020," they add.

The study from Emanuel and Bilinski was notable for calculating the excess COVID-19 and all-cause mortality to September 2020, they note. "After the initial peak in early spring, US death rates from COVID-19 and from all causes remained higher than rates in countries with high COVID-19 mortality."

"Few people will forget the Great Pandemic of 2020, where and how they lived, how it substantially changed their lives, and for many, the profound human toll it has taken," Bauchner and Fontanarosa write.

The study by Woolf and colleagues was supported by National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, the National Institute on Aging, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The study by Bilinski and Emanuel was partially funded by the Colton Foundation.Woolf, Emanuel, Fineberg, Bauchner, and Fontanarosa have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

JAMA. Published online October 12, 2020. Bilinsky and Emanuel, Abstract; Woolf et al, Abstract; Editorial

Damian McNamara is a staff journalist based in Miami. He covers a wide range of medical specialties, including infectious diseases, gastroenterology and neurology. Follow Damian on Twitter: @MedReporter.

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