As if the raw data from the pandemic weren’t bad enough, the numbers can be crunched to produce even more depressing stats. One such measure comes from the concept of “excess deaths”. Presumably in any country the number of people who die off each year should be about the same year-to-year. Not so for our almost gone 2020. From March through August of this year, 1,671,400 slipped the mortal coil, leaving 328,052,960 or so behind. That’s all causes. For 173,300 (10.4%) COVID had something or other to do with it. Over those same months in 2015-2019 an average of 1,370,000 deaths were reported. I promised no politics, not no math. So that’s 300,600 – 3 full Michigan Stadiums (not that we’ve seen that for a while) – more bodies racked up this year than we managed to do in the 5 years previous. And only 58% of those could be tied to COVID. There’s another gruesome story there, but that comes later.
Not so fast, said Dr. Meredith Shields and her 5 friends at the National Cancer Institute, using the NCI’s internal research funds to support their deeper look at these numbers. Their paper came out yesterday in the prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine’s online edition*. They pointed out that our country in 2020 is a different place than it was in 2015-9, not just because of COVID. First, there’s more of us; per the Census Bureau, the total population of the US starting this year was 5.22 million persons larger than the average 2015-9. And we’re older. The increase is almost all boomers like me, with 5.04 million 65 or older, 10% more than last year. There were even some decreases in younger age groups, you know, those whippersnappers who do pretty well with COVID. Taking these factors into account, Dr. Shields and friends recrunched the numbers, ending up with 218,000 – only 2 Michigan Stadiums, packed – excess deaths, with now 80% having something to do with COVID. Most of those were in folks my age or older. But the non-COVID excess deaths were primarily in those 25-64. What gets these younger people? Cancer and heart attacks, of course, possibly made more deadly when the hospital or E.R. is avoided. Then accidents, overdoses and suicides, possibly borne of carelessness and despair from having to live under the fear and restrictions imposed by our betters trying to help us. Per Dr. Shields and company, the main causes of death in this younger group were diabetes, Alzheimer’s and heart disease. They did point out that for 28% cause of death was not stated and that the CDC had not yet released data on accidental deaths, drug overdoses, and suicides.
So, it’s been bad, but maybe not as bad as portrayed. Yes COVID can be a killer, but less than 1.9% of the 16,725,039 cases identified in our country this year have died with it, and many of those died “with COVID” rather than “of COVID”. Plus a lot of people have been infected but not bothered to be tested. Living in this pandemic is still hard, with conditions imposed to protect us having a not insignificant impact.
But, hey, they’ve got the vaccine. Two of them. And it’s Christmas! Remember how ol’ Ray sang it: “You only live but once, and when you’re dead you’re done.”
*Shiels MS, Almeida JS, García-Closas M, Albert PS, Freedman ND, Berrington de González A. Impact of Population Growth and Aging on Estimates of Excess U.S. Deaths During the COVID-19 Pandemic, March to August 2020. Ann Intern Med 2020; https://doi:10.7326/M20-7385