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I’ve received terrific feedback since starting these coronavirus data columns — and I appreciate every one of you who has emailed suggestions, comments, quibbles and more. An engaged readership is one of the reasons I love working at The Salt Lake Tribune.
One such email came from subscriber Walter Soltys, who asked if I could compare coronavirus deaths to other common types of death, both in Utah and across the country.
It’s a good idea, because comparing the onslaught of coronavirus numbers we’re seeing every day to ones that have existed for a long time can give a sense of perspective. It’s another way of looking at the “How worried should I be about this?” question.
[Read more: Complete coverage of the coronavirus]
Before I answer Soltys’ question, though, I think it’s worthwhile to discuss the relative worth of the stats we get on the coronavirus and how deaths fit into that.
Really, there are probably five tallies that are most important to describe the state of the disease in your community. They are the number of:
- Tests run.
- Positive cases.
- People hospitalized.
- People who die.
- People who recover.
Testing remains a challenge. The Utah Department of Health wants to test 7,000 people per day, officials say, but is currently only about 35% of the way there, doing about 2,500 tests daily. The last two days, it conducted even fewer than that. Early in the pandemic, symptomatic people were being turned away. Even now, asymptomatic people who have reason to believe they might have the disease are going home empty-handed.
Because overall testing is low, the number of reported positive cases is going to be significantly lower than the real number of cases. The University of Massachusetts polled a group of epidemiological experts last week, who estimated that only about 12% of coronavirus cases are currently being counted in the nationwide numbers. If they’re right, the U.S. total of 386,000 cases as of midday Tuesday really means there are about 3,210,000 cases in the country right now. Utah is in the top 10 of states in per-capita testing nationwide, and yet it’s still likely we’re missing a majority of cases.
The number of hospitalizations is important in terms of allocating and maximizing resources like nurses, intensive care unit beds and ventilators. For those on the front lines, this really matters.
Then comes what happens at the end of the virus’s life cycle: deaths and recoveries. Recovery numbers are being wildly underreported right now because, again, we simply don’t have the tests or tracking capabilities to know what happens with every coronavirus case. We’re too busy with everything else.
Deaths might be our most reliable statistic. Theoretically, if the disease progresses to the point that a person actually dies, at some point that person will have likely received a test. Yes, even in the U.S., there are at least some cases where a test is never administered, and a person dies. So the death statistics aren’t perfect either. Still, they may be the best we have, given how frequently testing protocols change on a day-to-day and community-to-community basis.
The problem is that they are a lagging indicator of what’s going on in the community. Deaths are the last thing to happen in the life cycle of the disease. If people wait until the number of deaths increase significantly to take action, they’re in for several more weeks of even greater numbers of deaths.
Now to get back to Soltys’ question. Maria Danilychev, a doctor from San Diego, created these animated graphics that show how the coronavirus death counts have evolved when compared to the top 15 causes of death in the United States. They weren’t quite up to date, so I added the past couple of days to the end of the animation.
You can see that on March 15, coronavirus deaths paled in comparison to the leading causes of death in America. But as the outbreak exploded, and as some severe cases ended up poorly, the coronavirus shot up the table.
On Tuesday, COVID-19 became the No. 1 daily killer in the U.S, with 1,970 deaths reported by evening. If you instead look at the average number of deaths over the last week, it’s now the third leading daily killer in the U.S., behind only heart disease and cancer.
Heart disease and cancer generally take years to develop, so it is a real shock that a virus that most infected people picked up by leading normal, day-to-day lives can kill this quickly.
As you probably noticed, deaths have plateaued in the past three days, which is a positive sign. That’s because New York — which accounts for nearly half of America’s deaths so far — finds itself later in the disease’s life cycle.
Most models project deaths to accelerate elsewhere, though. While I wrote about the limitations of the IHME model out of the University of Washington, it projects about 3,000 deaths per day in the United States at the disease’s peak. That would cement COVID-19 as the No. 1 daily killer in America.
What about in Utah? Here’s the equivalent animation for our state:
With the exception of Saturday (when five died), every day in Utah has involved zero, one, or two deaths per day. No deaths were reported Tuesday. That still ranks COVID-19 relatively high in terms of Utah deaths per day, though, as most of the top-10 causes claim fewer than three souls per day.
In Utah, models are more mixed about whether they expect the virus to be the No. 1 killer. IHME currently projects Utah to have a peak of seven deaths per day, but there’s a wide confidence interval of between one and 27 deaths at that peak. Because the daily numbers are relatively small, there will be a lot of day-to-day variation to consider as well. Just as previously discussed, there are reasons to believe that COVID-19 won’t hit Utah as hard as other states, in part because the population is younger and healthier than most.
I do think there’s one thing these animations really drive home, though: just how quickly the numbers can change when dealing with a viral infection. Without social distancing measures, the impact of the virus grows exponentially. With them, we have a good shot at containing COVID-19’s day-to-day impact.