What Do 'Missing Deaths' Imply About the Impact of COVID-19?

A New York Times analysis has little bearing on the infection fatality rate or the number of life-years typically lost to the disease.


New York Times analysis of mortality data from 11 countries suggests that deaths associated with the COVID-19 epidemic have been undercounted. The analysis, which counts 28,000 "missing deaths" in those countries, includes fatalities caused by other illnesses, on the assumption that hospitals overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases were unable to treat patients who might otherwise have been saved.

While this analysis adds to our understanding of the epidemic's impact, the significance of the undercounting described by the Times should not be exaggerated. It has little bearing on the overall fatality rate among peopled infected by the COVID-19 virus or the number of life-years typically lost to the disease.

Comparing deaths during the last month to deaths during the same period last year, the Times finds a total of 193,000 "excess deaths," of which 165,000 were recorded as COVID-19 fatalities. Based on that comparison, the death toll attributable to the epidemic (even if not to COVID-19 itself) was 17 percent higher than the official numbers indicate.

Since this analysis includes deaths that were not actually caused by COVID-19, it is not directly relevant to calculating the infection fatality rate. Even leaving that point aside, an undercount of this magnitude pales in comparison to the gap between total infections and official tallies of COVID-19 cases, which may be off by a factor on the order of 40 or so (judging from a recent study in Los Angeles County). The error in the denominator, in other words, is apt to be far bigger than the error in the numerator. And while the official tallies no doubt miss some COVID-19 deaths (especially those involving people with other serious medical conditions who die at home), they may also include fatalities caused by other illnesses among patients who tested positive for the virus.

The Times claims "these numbers undermine the notion that many people who have died from the virus may soon have died anyway." That depends on what you mean by "many" and "soon."

British epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, who led the Imperial College team responsible for dire COVID-19 projections that had a powerful impact on policy makers around the world, has estimated that "as much as half to two-thirds" of people who are killed by COVID-19 in the U.K. "would have died anyhow" by the end of the year. The Times analysis, since it is limited to a single month, does not address the accuracy of such predictions.

Even if Ferguson's estimate is off, it is clear that COVID-19 deaths are concentrated among people who are elderly and/or have serious preexisting conditions. That means the impact of the disease, in terms of life-years lost, is bound to be much less dramatic than it would be if COVID-19 were primarily killing otherwise healthy children, teenagers, and younger adults. That observation remains true whether or not people who are especially vulnerable to the disease would have died in the same month or year in the absence of the epidemic.

"This is killing mostly older people," observes Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer. "I think that's really relevant. I think we want to take into account the number of life years lost—not just the number of lives lost. The average age of death from COVID in Italy is 79½. So you do have to ask the question: How many years of life were lost? Especially when you consider that many of the people who have died had underlying medical conditions. The economist Paul Frijters roughly estimates that Italians lost perhaps an average of three years of life. And that's very different from a younger person losing 40 years of life or 60 years of life."

NEXT: What Each Side of the COVID-19 Debate Should Understand About the Other

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  1. The problem is they shafted the youth so they could have another year. It is not unlike taking social security and medicare transfer payments from relatively poor young adults to relative wealthy older adults.

    Wasn’t there a film in which older rich people were taking over the bodies of younger folks? Seems like it had Mick Jagger in it.

    1. Carousel will be a final solution to the Boomer question, provided that they don’t attempt to run.

      1. Run runner!

      2. Carousel will be a final solution to the Boomer question, provided that they don’t attempt to run.

        The Boomer question AND the Millennial question.

        Gen X doesn’t have to worry. They were left at home with a note saying ‘be back soon, get your own dinner’.

        And Zoomers? Thanks to Common Core, they can’t figure out how old they are. And they’re streaming TikTok on their lifeclocks.

        1. Bill Gates might solve that problem by having an RFID chip / immunity pass jabbed into ever persons arm. If the government can coerce an antibody test or a vaccine, why not an RFID chip too?

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    2. Freejack?

  2. April: U.S. Death Rate From All Causes (Including COVID-19) At Multi-Year LOW

    1. I’ve been predicting for months that not only would there likely not be a statistically significant uptick in deaths this year, but that it was likely the overall death rate would drop slightly. So far that looks like a safe bet.

    2. They don’t think people will notice that as Covid deaths tick up, the deaths from Flu will stop ticking up as well. Partially this is now because everyone who has a respiratory infection is assumed to be covid related.

      Pneumonia, from all sources, is a huge killer every year. Covid just took a big share of that this year.

      It is also weird this article ignored the back classification of deaths as covid. The GitHub release of NYC hospitals showed them back classifying deaths in Jan/Feb as covid related.

    3. So, does this mean COVID-19 is causing negative uncounted deaths in America? What I’m hearing is we should all start licking doorknobs and coughing on each other because DEATHPLAGUE 2K19 is apparently preventing net deaths.

    4. Can you please stop reposting that? That article’s author didn’t even wait until the final death tolls came in — so he drastically undercounted the deaths. The actual weekly deaths for his data set were at all-time highs. The author doesn’t even list his full name. And for some reason, his self-calculated “death-rate” gets lower when the weekly death totals go up and the population remains the same in the tally. (Maybe he has a logical explanation for that last part. I don’t know.) That article is useless on multiple counts.

  3. It is, of course, valid to ask how much the economy and people’s livelihood should be sacrificed to save mostly older, frail people. But it feels like couching the question in euphemism to talk in terms of “life-years lost” instead of talking about old people dying.

    1. Don’t tell the Covid-Karens safely ensconced in their homes, still receiving their paychecks to do 20% of the work they’d normally do that there is merit in that discussion.


  4. Taking analysis from the New York Times is like taking flying lessons from Harrison Ford.

    1. Well, he did make the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs.

    2. he parked on the back of a Destroyer that was pretty cool.

    3. They could have used CNN or Matthew Yglesias’ thoughts you know…

    4. Taking analysis from the New York Times is like taking pandemic lessons from Steven Soderbergh.

  5. >analysis from the New York Times
    its always good to be prepared. who knows what the media will kvetch about next. Also, Ford has done a good job surviving mishaps in the air. There was the golf course one and the taxi route one but I don’t know of any others.

  6. //A New York Times analysis of mortality data from 11 countries suggests that deaths associated with the COVID-19 epidemic have been undercounted. //

    Of course. So, not only are they now including in the totals every “probable” death due COVID-19, they are now adding all of the unmeasured, uncounted, undetected “secret” deaths out there, somewhere.

    Who could possibly accuse these people of confabulating in service of an agenda? Unthinkable.

    1. Better safe than sorry. Also, think about all the women facing abuse while in quarantine. We need to levy a Man Tax to fund abused women shelters.

  7. It was inevitable that they were going to try and find some way to inflate the death count once it became apparent that this wasn’t the apocalyptic disease they claimed it was.

    1. When the models don’t predict the data, it means the data is wrong. Worked for climate change.

  8. This is turning into the global warming debate. A bunch of half assed statistics being thrown at each other by two sides who aren’t as data driven as they think they are.

    1. Yup. I was hoping, since everyone is in this together, this crisis would transcend the usual politics. But Team Blue and Team Red have been working hard to politicize it.

      1. It can be politicized precisely because it is not an existential threat. Just like CAGW.

    2. Well, one side is overwhelmingly asserting entitlement to the following:

      (1) telling millions of people how to manage their personal risks;

      (2) the ability to predict the future.

      You don’t need any statistics to reject both of these things outright.

  9. Example of people talking past each other.

    Mortality rate is less than 1%. I am willing to take that risk. Don’t tell me what to do.

    Virus is highly contagious and herd immunity requires 200M infections leading to ~2M deaths. More deaths if all 200M get infected at the same time.

    Hospitalization rate is 10%? Hmmm , well that’s a different analysis that NO ONE is making. What is the chance that I end up in the hospital for a month? This seems like key info. This isn’t Star Trek where they push the red button at 99% of lethal radiation exposure and everyone goes about their merry business without ill effect.

    1. 10% among whom?

  10. If it saves one hour of one life, it’s worth it.

    1. If it saves one hour of life AND SOMEBODY ELSE IS PAYING FOR THE TREATMENT, it’s worth it.

    2. I knew you hated old people… *tsk tsk*

  11. Old geezers vote more than any other demographic. Thus why the politicians and their media cocksuckers are freaking out about Covid-19 deaths.

    1. Also the fact that so many of the septuagenarians dying of Covid are so much younger than the majority of the prominent pols in and around DC.

  12. Wow

    What a horrid, mindless article

    I was really hoping for some insight

    GO read the times article

    There are places where total deaths for the period have increased by 30 percent or more.

    that is, in multiple localities and countries, 30 percent or more people have died this year compared to last year, this time period, and, mostly, any time period.

    That is why it implies an undercount in Covid deaths

    It puts the lie to the myth of covid deaths being overcounted

    It is interesting he does not link the article, as it would show the numbers


    In NYC 2700 more people died in the period 3/4 to 4/4 than died in September of 2001

    All a conspiracy theory, dontcha know

    1. All that proves is that the subways should have been the first thing closed.

    2. OK. Sucks for NYC. What does that have to do with rest of the country?

      1. Oh, very nice
        [golf clap]

        shows real global understanding and a grasp of both geopolitics and epidemiology

        Try reading the article

        And seeing the number of places globally that this is the case, and then imagine if your ignorant viewpoint is followed, that one of those places could be where you live

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