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The Complications of COVID-19 Fatality Data

This week, JLF’s Senior Fellow and former Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, Dr. Don van der Vaart, wrote a research brief analyzing the currently available data on hospitalizations and fatalities related to the coronavirus outbreak. Dr. van der Vaart writes:

All viruses can be serious or even lethal. When a patient succumbs to a viral disease, the actual cause of death is not necessarily the virus itself.  Respiratory diseases often bring complications, such as pneumonia, that can be the actual cause of death. As a result, the reporting of deaths from viruses has been imprecise.  Long before the current COVID-19 pandemic, doctors have debated how to distinguish between flu and pneumonia when identifying the cause of death.

To illustrate the difficulties this can present, Dr. van der Vaart uses the example of the flu. Dr. van der Vaart writes:

The distinctions are still unclear.  For example, the number of flu deaths in the United States and in North Carolina over the past few years varies significantly…

Annual deaths have ranged from 20,000 to 60,000 per year, symptomatic illnesses were about 30 million per year, and hospitalizations fluctuated from a low of 200,000 to a high of 800,000. The 2017-2018 flu season was particularly deadly. The CDC first reported almost 80,000 deaths during that season. This number was later revised downwards to 60,000, which illustrates the uncertainty in the process. North Carolina averages approximately 2,000 flu/pneumonia deaths per year.

This challenge exists with the tracking of Coronavirus fatalities. Dr. van der Vaart explains:

Similarly, NC is currently reporting more than 600 COVID-19 deaths. However, NC DHHS uses a different policy where COVID-19 is concerned. Unlike flu deaths, deaths coded as COVID-19 are deaths that may or may not be confirmed by a test

Even taking into account these complications, the data in North Carolina points to a need for a more localized approach to the pandemic. Dr. van der Vaart writes:

Similar graphs for North Carolina counties would allow elected officials to determine if coronavirus response restrictions should be more localized. Governor Cooper proclaimed that COVID-19 “does not respect county borders.”  Yet, substantial differences currently exist between different counties, that is, COVID-19 appears to be much more prevalent in some counties than others.

The John Locke Foundation will continue to bring you data analysis each week.

You can read Dr. van der Vaart’s piece here. You can read more analysis from Dr. van der Vaart here.

Brenee Goforth / Marketing and Communications Associate

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