More pandemic deaths in 2020 than 2021?

So if you’ve been watching the news over the last few days you’ve seen a rash of headlines along the lines of “US COVID-19 deaths in 2021 surpass last year’s toll” (The Hill). Is that true? Let’s see what Dr. House has to say …

I feel his pain.

Even some basic common sense shows comparing year-to-date numbers for 2020 and 2021 is utterly absurd. Let’s take a look at the CDC’s excess death database, using data through the end of October (since US medical statistics reporting is a train wreck and the November data isn’t usable yet due to late reporting). COVID19 wasn’t widespread in the US last year until at least April. There were only five COVID19 excess deaths in the first five weeks of 2020. There were 120,541 in the first five weeks of 2021. So these reports comparing 2020 to 2021 are just typical modern media reporting: simplistic, context free, and melodramatic.

So what if we do a rational comparison. By the first week of April 2020 COVID-19 was widespread in the US and weekly excess deaths were over 10,000. Let’s compare the first week of April through the last week of October in each year. In that period last year (2020) we had 230,240 excess deaths attributed to COVID. 2021? “only” 207,590 – . I say “only” in the sense it’s not as high as 2020, not in the sense that it’s anywhere near a good thing or shouldn’t have been a lot lower. (and, that number may go up some due to the reporting problems, but it’s probably not far off). For reference, using a baseline of that period (April to October) of 1,730,000 deaths (the number of people we would expect to die in the US during those months), over 12% more people died so far this year who wouldn’t have were it not for COVID. Still, put it all together … lower is lower, and you can argue it’s a positive sign given the “Delta Surge” the last couple of months. However, hope doesn’t sell for some reason and there is a lingering fear among officials who certainly know better about the statistics that if the message is “diluted” with hope, people who haven’t been vaccinated will use it as yet another excuse to avoid the jab.

The “Delta Surge” starting in August seems to be waning, but if last year is a guide the winter surge got started about the end of October/Early November. Will we have a similar winter surge this year? Hard to say, but it might be that the Delta surge, combined with vaccination and the sad fact that many vulnerable people have already been lost, it will take the edge off the expected winter peak.

If we use the first week of April as a baseline, the total number of excess deaths (people killed by the SARS-COV-2 virus who wouldn’t have died otherwise) in the first full year of the pandemic, from April 2020 to the end of March 2021, was 556,179. Even if this winter season (Nov to March) is exactly as bad as last year, the total will be 5% less than the first year of the pandemic. For what it’s worth I think this winter won’t be as bad as last year, and I suspect when we look at the number for April 2021 to March 2022 they will be 10% or even 15% lower than the first year. To be clear, that’s not as big a dip as I’d hope, but given the mangled response to the pandemic by all the key players (government, industry, public), sadly not surprising.

Side note: if you’re over 30 or have an underlying vulnerability, just get the stupid shot.

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