Excess Deaths: 2019 vs. 2020
As I discussed in the previous post there is controversy surrounding the CDC counting of deaths due to COVID-19. Some organizations publish articles making the case for over-counting and others for accurate-counting. One of the main problems with these debates is the lack of any objective context within which to assess claims. The over-counting group points out guidance that allows wide leeway for doctors on cause of death decisions and numerous but isolated instances where this leeway has clearly been abused. The accurate-counting group claims that doctors would rarely if ever falsely claim a death was due to COVID-19 and discount any economic or social pressure that could motivate such an outcome.
How then can we objectively assess the strengths and weaknesses of these two diametrically opposed views? One way is to compare the actual death data from (pre-COVID) 2019 with that of (COVID) 2020. If the 2020 data shows significant “excess death” in 2020 compared to the previous year then that’s a pretty strong indication of a new source of death. Also, note that this assessment uses death from all sources, not just death attributed to a specific source. There may be uncertainty as to why a person died, but the death itself is unambiguous. Thus this is data in which we can place extremely high confidence.
The CDC death data by week for the United States is found here. The information is contained in large .csv (comma separated values) files that can be downloaded and converted into Excel files for manipulation and analysis. Note that this data is raw death counts which includes all causes, be it COVID-19 or any other. The following chart shows the number of deaths per week (week 1 is the first full week in January) for 2019 and 2020 through mid-November (i.e., week 45).
It is immediately obvious that the claim of minimal excess deaths in 2020 due to COVID-19 is false. The Illinois COVID-19 lockdowns began in mid-March and the increased number of deaths begins at week 12, which in 2020 ends on March 23. The 2020 number of deaths remains above 2019 until week 45, which in 2020 ends on November 9. The total number of excess deaths in 2020 as compared with 2019 (through week 45) is 305,562. Due to the timing of these 2020 excess death events the only credible cause is COVID-19.
As of mid-November the total estimated number of COVID-19 deaths was 231,197. Thus approximately 75% of the excess deaths in 2020 have been attributed to COVID-19. Although certainly not conclusive, this result weighs heavily in favor of the group claiming accuracy in the COVID-19 death counts. Something has to be the cause for the significant increase in deaths between 2019 and 2020, with the new illness the most likely reason.
Also, the fact that only three-quarters of these excess deaths are attributed to COVID-19 adds credibility to the assumption of accuracy. For were there significant over counting we would expect more than 100% of the excess deaths to have been attributed to COVID-19, which is not the case. But this result does raise the question of what caused the other 25% (almost 75,000) excess deaths in 2020.
However, we must also note that in October and November the number of 2020 excess deaths clearly decreased and in week 45 is actually lower than that week in 2019. Thus, if we are using the significant excess deaths in the previous weeks as evidence for COVID-19 dominated mortality then, to be consistent, we must also use the reduction of excess deaths in October and November as evidence for the waning of COVID-19 caused mortality. Thus this data argues against the recent hysteria surrounding increased COVID-19 “cases.” That is, if people are catching the illness in larger numbers but are not dying from it in any significant numbers then this should be a source of comfort rather than terror.
Thus the use of this death count data has provided the context necessary to assess the claims of the opposing camps. One might think that the work is done and we can all go home unperturbed. However, when we begin to evaluate the data by age group new and significant issues arise.