Washington Post and New York Times have found that’s true of the current epidemic. Both publications identified an above-average number of deaths nationwide in March and April — and concluded the surge was only partly explained by the COVID deaths that have been publicly reported.
The disparity has been most pronounced in the hardest-hit parts of the country. In New York City, for example, some 24,000 more people than usual died through May 9, the New York Times reported. The count of coronavirus deaths through that time was 19,926.
The analysis Quast conducted for the Tampa Bay Times was based on the same data, which comes from death certificates and is typically delayed a few weeks.
The analysis compared the number of deaths each week to the average number for that same week over the last six years. The historical counts were adjusted for population growth.
It also produced a more-conservative number by calculating a margin of error based on the historical counts and using the highest number within the margin. The two numbers form the range of expected deaths described by the Times.
Experts who reviewed the work said the extra deaths likely had a variety of causes. Some were almost certainly misattributed COVID deaths, Howard said.
“The testing for coronavirus is not 100 percent accurate,” he said. “You have false positives and false negatives.”
Eunkyung “Muriel” Lee, an assistant professor in the health sciences department at the University of Central Florida, said others may have happened because the epidemic kept people with chronic conditions from getting the appropriate treatment.
Hospitals in Florida may have admitted or kept fewer patients than usual in anticipation of a surge of COVID patients, experts said.
People in Florida may have also been afraid to seek care. The Associated Press reported that emergency room visits across Florida dropped 50 percent since the epidemic began. In Broward County, the number of people who died by the time rescue workers arrived doubled from last year.
Quast said the larger trend contradicts the narrative that many COVID deaths would have happened regardless because the people who died were elderly or had existing health conditions.
“This view is not, at least completely, accurate,” he said.
Some experts say there could be fewer excess deaths moving forward as physicians and medical examiners get better at identifying the virus.
But they also caution that there could be another wave of cases as the state reopens. At the same time, the number of non-natural deaths could return to normal as drivers return to the road and violent crime picks up.
“If there’s a large return to normal traffic and normal interactions, it could be a double whammy,” Quast said.
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About this analysis
The analysis in this report was conducted by Troy Quast, an associate professor in the University of South Florida College of Public Health who specializes in health economics and health policy. Earlier this year, he published research in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence that found drug overdoses were underreported in national statistics.
To examine excess deaths in Florida amid the coronavirus epidemic, Quast pulled data from the National Center for Health Statistics, an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He calculated the expected number of deaths by taking the number of deaths in each of the last six years, adjusting for population growth and determining the average.
Quast also used the historical data to calculate a 95 percent confidence interval and determined the highest number within the margin. The approach was similar to the one used to estimate excess deaths after Hurricane Maria in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The Tampa Bay Times presented the estimate of excess deaths as a range between the two figures. As a point of comparison, the newspaper also presented the CDC’s provisional counts for coronavirus deaths for Florida.
The analysis focused on five weeks of data from March 22 through April 25. Data through May 16 was available online, but the most recent information was largely incomplete.
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