True number of Covid deaths in the US likely undercounted, experts say
"Many of the deaths aren’t counted in the official Covid tally because they happen months after infections, expert says
The true number of deaths from the Covid pandemic in the US are likely being undercounted, due to the long-lasting and little-understood effects of Covid infection and other deadly complications that surged during the past two years.
“We are seeing right now the highest death rates we have ever seen in the history of this business,” J Scott Davison, CEO of insurance company OneAmerica, told journalists on 30 December.
“Death rates are up 40% over what they were pre-pandemic,” he said, among working-age people between 18 and 64. Deaths among older Americans have also increased, with one in 100 Americans over the age of 65 dying.
There have been an estimated 942,431 excess deaths in the US since February 2020, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hispanic, Black and Native American and Alaska Native populations have been disproportionately affected with high death rates, research shows.
The pandemic pales in comparison to other previous crises, Davison said. “A one-in-200-year catastrophe would be a 10% increase over pre-pandemic [levels]. So 40% is just unheard of.”
Many of the deaths aren’t counted in the official Covid tally, he said, because they happen months after Covid infections. “The deaths that are being reported as Covid deaths greatly understate the actual death losses among working-age people from the pandemic. It may not all be Covid on their death certificates, but deaths are up in just huge, huge numbers.”
In addition to deaths from Covid-19, drug overdoses – already one of the leading causes of death for working-age adults – and homicides have also risen during the pandemic.
Insurers are also seeing a rise in disability claims – at first for short-term disability and now for long-term disability, because of both long Covid and delayed care for other illnesses, “because people haven’t been able to get the health care that they need because the hospitals are overrun”, Davison said. It’s a trend ”consistent across every player in the business” of insurance.
Deaths from long Covid have been particularly difficult to track, because the virus may no longer be present at the time of death, but it weakened organs or created fatal new ailments.
“We’re seeing the statistics get written as we go, almost,” Micah Pollak, associate professor of economics at Indiana University Northwest, said. And high rates of mortality and disability will only continue as more people get infected, he said.
“We really don’t know what the tail of this thing looks like,” Pollak said of long Covid. “The further you get out [from infection], the longer time you have to potentially develop some kind of complications.”
The high rates of death haven’t surprised him, Pollak said, given the equally high rates of cases and the unknown effects of a novel virus.
“There’s just so much evidence of these long-term effects of Covid that I naturally assumed people realized that, hey, we’re gonna see probably a lot of deaths down the road – not necessarily soon after infection, but indirectly as a result of infection, as well as not just deaths but disability.”
He expects these losses to continue as the pandemic surges and hospitals pass their breaking points.
“People say that we’re on the verge of the healthcare system collapsing and things like that, and I think we’re probably past that point,” Pollak said. “We don’t really know what’s going to happen in the next month or so as all these Omicron cases hit the healthcare system.”
The crush of the latest surge is adding to two years of overload and burnout, which could have serious long-term implications for healthcare.
“We’re going to come out of this with a healthcare system just incredibly diminished because of what it’s gone through,” Pollak said. “We have some very serious long-term consequences for our health care system that, if we don’t address them, you’re going to see more sickness, more preventable illnesses, whether it’s Covid or otherwise, showing up in the population that we just can’t deal with.”
The economic fallout from the pandemic will probably be felt for years to come, with continued workforce shortages that are already being felt.
“This worker shortage that we’re experiencing is not going to go away,” Pollak said.
In addition to the large numbers of people dying, many are becoming disabled – making it difficult for them and their caregivers to work other jobs.
“In the US especially, we just don’t have very good childcare benefits, elder care benefits, family care benefits,” Pollak said. “And as long as we don’t have those things, people are going to be making the choice to exit the workforce, if they can, to provide those services.”