Efforts to track the severity and public health impact of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the United States have been hampered by state-level differences in diagnostic test availability, differing strategies for prioritization of individuals for testing, and delays between testing and reporting. Evaluating unexplained increases in deaths due to all causes or attributed to nonspecific outcomes, such as pneumonia and influenza, can provide a more complete picture of the burden of COVID-19.
To estimate the burden of all deaths related to COVID-19 in the United States from March to May 2020.
Design, Setting, and Population
This observational study evaluated the numbers of US deaths from any cause and deaths from pneumonia, influenza, and/or COVID-19 from March 1 through May 30, 2020, using public data of the entire US population from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). These numbers were compared with those from the same period of previous years. All data analyzed were accessed on June 12, 2020.
Main Outcomes and Measures
Increases in weekly deaths due to any cause or deaths due to pneumonia/influenza/COVID-19 above a baseline, which was adjusted for time of year, influenza activity, and reporting delays. These estimates were compared with reported deaths attributed to COVID-19 and with testing data.
There were approximately 781 000 total deaths in the United States from March 1 to May 30, 2020, representing 122 300 (95% prediction interval, 116 800-127 000) more deaths than would typically be expected at that time of year. There were 95 235 reported deaths officially attributed to COVID-19 from March 1 to May 30, 2020. The number of excess all-cause deaths was 28% higher than the official tally of COVID-19-reported deaths during that period. In several states, these deaths occurred before increases in the availability of COVID-19 diagnostic tests and were not counted in official COVID-19 death records. There was substantial variability between states in the difference between official COVID-19 deaths and the estimated burden of excess deaths.
Conclusions and Relevance
Excess deaths provide an estimate of the full COVID-19 burden and indicate that official tallies likely undercount deaths due to the virus. The mortality burden and the completeness of the tallies vary markedly between states.