Study suggests official COVID-19 death numbers underestimate ‘full burden’ of pandemic

A new study indicates that the number of official COVID-19 deaths may underestimate the “full burden” of the pandemic.

The observational study, published on July 1 in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal, found that there were 95,235 deaths officially attributed to COVID-19 from March 1 to May 30, 2020. In comparison, the number of deaths due to any cause increased by 122,000, which is 28% higher than those reported for COVID-19.

To compare excess death estimates with official COVID-19 mortality numbers, the researchers compiled weekly numbers of reported deaths per state due to the pandemic, as well as deaths due to any cause. The researchers gathered their data from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).


According to the study, the gap between reported COVID-19 deaths and excess deaths can be attributed to several factors, such as testing intensity, location of death, and guidelines for the recording of deaths that are suspected -- but not confirmed -- to be related to COVID-19.

As the pandemic progressed and testing advanced, the official death statistics reflected excess mortality estimates. New York City’s official COVID-19 death counts were revised after thorough re-evaluation of death certificates, which added an additional 5,000 deaths to the city-wide tally.

The findings of the study are echoed by health officials from several European countries, especially in those that were impacted more by COVID-19 and had weaker testing capacity. The real-time, all-cause mortality data by The Euromomo Project displays the dramatic increase in all-cause deaths associated with the pandemic in these countries.

“Monitoring syndromic causes of death can provide crucial additional information on the severity and progression of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the study said. “There can also be secondary effects on mortality due to changes in population behavior brought about by strict lockdown measures and an aversion of the health care system.”

“Together with information on official tallies of COVID-19 deaths, monitoring excess mortality provides a key tool in evaluating the effects of an ongoing pandemic,” researchers of the study concluded.

The study’s findings were published a few days before the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases across the world surpassed 11 million. As of July 3, there were more than 523,000 confirmed global COVID-19 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.