A new study estimates that the number of people who have died of COVID-19 in the U.S. is more than 900,000, a number 57% higher than official figures.
Worldwide, the study’s authors say, the COVID-19 death count is nearing 7 million, more than double the reported number of 3.24 million.
The analysis comes from researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, who looked at excess mortality from March 2020 through May 3, 2021, compared it with what would be expected in a typical nonpandemic year, then adjusted those figures to account for a handful of other pandemic-related factors.
The final count only estimates deaths “caused directly by the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” according to the study’s authors. SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes COVID-19.
Researchers estimated dramatic undercounts in countries such as India, Mexico and Russia, where they said the official death counts are some 400,000 too low in each country. In some countries — including Japan, Egypt and several Central Asian nations — the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s death toll estimate is more than 10 times higher than reported totals.
“The analysis just shows how challenging it has been during the pandemic to accurately track the deaths — and actually, transmission — of COVID. And by focusing in on the total COVID death rate, I think we bring to light just how much greater the impact of COVID has been already and may be in the future,” said Dr. Christopher Murray, who heads the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
The group reached its estimates by calculating excess mortality based on a variety of sources, including official death statistics from various countries, as well as academic studies of other locations.
Then, it examined other mortality factors influenced by the pandemic. For example, some of the extra deaths were caused by increased opioid overdoses or deferred health care. On the other hand, the dramatic reduction in flu cases last winter and a modest drop in deaths caused by injury resulted in lower mortality in those categories than usual.
Researchers at UW ultimately concluded that the extra deaths not directly caused by COVID-19 were effectively offset by the other reductions in death rates, leaving them to attribute all of the net excess deaths to the coronavirus.
“When you put all that together, we conclude that the best way, the closest estimate, for the true COVID death is still excess mortality, because some of those things are on the positive side, other factors are on the negative side,” Murray said.
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