July 17, 2020

The number of deaths from COVID-19 reported in the news is likely underestimating the pandemic’s actual death toll, according to a series of research letters by the Center on Society and Health at VCU and Yale published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in July 2020, and updated in October 2020, December 2020, and April 2021.

From March 1st, 2020 to January 2nd, 2021, the United States saw 522,368 excess deaths, but only 72% of the excess deaths were attributed to COVID-19. The other 28% were linked to other causes such as heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease. 

This means that the pandemic has cost more lives than the COVID-19 death count would suggest.  

The persistent attribution of excess deaths to causes other than COVID-19 could have multiple explanations. First, the number of publicly reported COVID-19 deaths is taken from provisional data that are often incomplete and may omit COVID-19 deaths that were misattributed to another cause. And deaths attributed to other causes like heart disease and diabetes could reflect undocumented complications from COVID-19 such as inflammation caused by the virus. 

Additionally, some of the excess deaths may have less to do with the virus itself than the restrictions imposed by the pandemic which may have resulted in reduced access to health care, fears of calling 911 for acute emergencies, or psychological stresses that lead to death.