News & Politics

Just How Inflated Are Coronavirus Death Counts, Exactly?

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Last month, New York funeral home directors blew the whistle about inflated coronavirus death numbers. Death certificates mark “COVID-19” as the cause of death even when the deceased hadn’t tested positive for coronavirus, much less actually died of the virus. This week, a San Diego county supervisor suggested the numbers are even more inflated.

“We’ve unfortunately had six pure, solely coronavirus deaths — six out of 3.3 million people,” County Supervisor Jim Desmond said on the radio show Armstrong & Getty Extra Large Interviews., The San Diego Union-Tribune reported. San Diego County had reported roughly 190 deaths at the time — the current number is 200.

Desmond went on to criticize California’s lockdown. “I mean, what number are we trying to get to with those odds. I mean, it’s incredible. We want to be safe, and we can do it, but unfortunately, it’s more about control than getting the economy going again and keeping people safe,” he said.

In short, Desmond was suggesting that while COVID-19 may have contributed to the 190 deaths, most of those deaths were due in part to previous, unrelated health concerns.

Indeed, the disease has proven most deadly for people with underlying health conditions, so it stands to reason that “pure, solely coronavirus deaths” would be the minority — perhaps even just 3.2 percent of the total recorded deaths, as Desmond suggested.

As of Friday afternoon, there have been 87,218 deaths attributed to COVID-19 in the U.S. If Desmond’s claim is accurate and if that 3.2 percent rate holds across the country, and discounting the death certificate inflation, that would mean there are only 2,891 “pure, solely coronavirus deaths” in the U.S.

This is a rough estimate and it would be extremely difficult to confirm. Furthermore, there is little reason to dismiss a death when coronavirus has indeed contributed to it. If someone already had a serious case of asthma, got coronavirus, and died, it would be fair to say coronavirus contributed to the death.

However, the likelihood that “pure, solely coronavirus deaths” are so low does make a difference when analyzing the pandemic in terms of years of life lost, an important measurement. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) applies a principle that “the allocation of health resources must consider not only the number of deaths by cause but also by age.” Therefore, the CDC explains that the “years of potential life lost” is a useful figure — not because the lives of young people are more important than the lives of the elderly, but because humans can only delay death, not prevent it, and beause there is a difference between a disease that kills a 20-year-old in the prime of her life and one that kills a 90-year-old who would have otherwise died a month later.

Taking this figure, James Agresti and Andrew Glen at Just Facts compared the maximum years of life the lockdowns could possibly save and compared it to the years of life lost from the anxiety surrounding the pandemic, including lockdown anxiety. “The anxiety from reactions to Covid-19—such as business shutdowns, stay-at-home orders, media exaggerations, and legitimate concerns about the virus—will extinguish at least seven times more years of life than can possibly be saved by the lockdowns,” they concluded.

Since COVID-19 robs an average of 12 years of life from its victims, the lockdowns could save no more than 7.4 million years of life. Meanwhile, the anxiety and stress of the pandemic will cost 42.9 million Americans an average of 1.3 years of life, thus destroying 55.7 million years of life.

The coronavirus anxiety and stress cost at least 7.5 times more in terms of years of life than the lockdowns could possibly save, according to Just Facts.

If Jim Desmond is correct about the low rate of “pure, solely coronavirus deaths,” then COVID-19 may take even fewer years of life from its victims, thus bolstering the case against the lockdowns even further.

Americans would be wrong to only consider “pure, solely coronavirus deaths” in their analysis of the coronavirus pandemic. Even when COVID-19 only exacerbates a pre-existing condition and causes death that way, that death is tragic and rightly considered part of the pandemic. However, his claim raises two questions about reported deaths. If there are “pure” coronavirus deaths, are there “impure” ones? Did some people who tested positive for the virus nevertheless die of something else entirely?

There may be four types of recorded coronavirus deaths: (1) deaths only caused by COVID-19 (roughly 3 percent), (2) deaths in which COVID-19 ended the life of someone already struggling with health conditions, (3) deaths from other causes but after a patient had tested positive for the virus, and (4) deaths falsely marked “COVID-19” when there was not even a test. Deaths of type 1 and 2 are rightly considered coronavirus deaths, while deaths of type 3 are much harder to distinguish from type 2, and deaths of type 4 are completely inflating the numbers.

Americans cannot claim there have only been 2,891 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic, but they should be skeptical about the 87,218 number. The true number of coronavirus deaths is likely to be smaller.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.

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