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Published on February 13, 2024
Excess US Deaths During Pandemic Likely Undercounted, Study SuggestsSource: Unsplash/Martin Sanchez

A recent study reveals that the grim toll of COVID-19 may be heavier than previously reported. Researchers from the University of Minnesota, Boston University, and the University of Pennsylvania published their findings, indicating there were likely around 1.2 million excess deaths due to natural causes in the United States during the first 30 months of the pandemic, a number significantly higher than recorded.

Analyzing mortality trends between March 2020 and August 2022, the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, leveraged past data to estimate expected natural-cause fatalities in various U.S. counties. Cross-referencing these with actual deaths, researchers found nearly 1 in 7 excess deaths during the pandemic were not classified as COVID-19 related — a significant oversight. According to the University of Minnesota article, the discrepancies often aligned with surges of the virus; however, they frequently preceded the spikes, suggesting early pandemic fatalities may have been misclassified.

The discrepancy in death counts was notably pronounced in the U.S. South, the West, and non-metropolitan areas. These findings highlight inadequacies in the death reporting system across the nation, potentially obscuring the true impact of the pandemic especially in certain regions. Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, an associate professor of sociology in the U of M College of Liberal Arts and one of the study's authors, underscored the decentralized nature of the U.S. health system. She told the University of Minnesota, "These results suggest that improving the quality of death reporting, so deaths are attributed to the correct cause, is an important aspect of preparing for future pandemics — and one that is easily overlooked."

The research was backed by substantial funding from a range of sources, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the National Institute on Aging, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. With the primary acute phase of the pandemic subsiding, team members at these institutions are delving further into the pandemic's long-term effects on U.S. mortality rates, seeking a clearer picture as the world moves into a new phase of living with COVID-19.