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The numbers seem catastrophic, overwhelming, beyond a magnitude that the human mind or heart can grasp: What do 60,000 — or even 240,000 — deaths look like?

Those are roughly the lower and upper limits of projected fatalities in the U.S. from Covid-19 in models that have been informing U.S. policy. Last month, when the lower estimate was 100,000, the White House recommended nationwide countermeasures. Those started with a ban on gatherings and quickly escalated to closing schools and businesses, advising people to wear face masks, and reminding them to stay physically apart. This week, when the lower estimate (from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation) dropped to 60,000, reflecting how well those measures are working, it stoked optimism that the epidemic might soon end with less loss of life.

The lower number, 60,000, is a little more than the capacity of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. It is the number of passengers in 180 full jumbo jets. It is more than the number of U.S. combat deaths in the Vietnam War.

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And 240,000, of course, is four times any of the above.

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But are these large numbers or small numbers? At the beginning of the pandemic’s spread in the U.S., President Trump dismissed early projections of thousands, even tens of thousands, of U.S. deaths as no worse than the lives lost in an average influenza year. So far this season, flu deaths total 24,000 to 63,000 (data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are estimates with wide uncertainties).

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Whether you think a multiple of up to 10 on top of that is a tragedy or merely unfortunate is a personal call. For what it’s worth, about 8,000 Americans die every day from, almost overwhelmingly, diseases and other natural causes. Those, of course, haven’t stopped; Covid-19 deaths are in addition to those (with a caveat noted below).

To make these numbers easier to grasp, we show how 60,000 to 240,000 compares to some of the leading causes of death and to previous pandemics.

Epidemic Graph 4
Hyacinth Empinado/STAT

One note about methodology: The projected Covid-19 deaths come from models that see the number of cases and deaths plateauing nationally in the next few weeks, as they have already done in Seattle, San Francisco, and other places that were hit first. If stay-at-home orders and other countermeasures keep working, there should be few deaths after July. We therefore treated the 60,000 to 240,000 deaths as occurring over five months, from March to July, as the IHME researchers do, and therefore calculated five months worth of cancer, heart disease, and other deaths. Of course, as Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House Covid-19 task force, told a JAMA webcast this week, the new coronavirus “is not going to disappear from the planet, for sure,” after July.

But the concentration of deaths is “truncated into weeks,” said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. That is what captures our attention and overwhelms hospitals.

Disease Graph
Hyacinth Empinado/STAT

Covid-19 is particularly severe in — and more likely to kill — the elderly and people with existing illnesses, including heart disease. Some people taken by Covid-19 would likely have died from these diseases even in the five-month time frame. We do not try to calculate how many of the Covid-19 deaths “substitute” for other deaths; that is an important calculation that researchers will be eager to do once the crisis passes.

You may believe a different methodology paints a truer picture of how Covid-19 deaths compare to others. As we said, how to think about deaths is deeply personal.

    • The numbers from CDC are scaled to 5 months.

      QUOTE:We therefore treated the 60,000 to 240,000 deaths as occurring over five months, from March to July, as the IHME researchers do, and therefore calculated five months worth of cancer, heart disease, and other deaths.ENDQUOTE

  • 61.000 people died from the flu in the 2017-2018 flu season and we didn’t close the country then.The main reason we did close was to give hospitals time to prepare and get extra ventilators, that has been done so lets get back to work

    • But, medical workers do not typically catch the flu and die. This infection must be way more virulent. And contagious. And will take out more young people. and more people. if we didn’t shut it down what would we have? 1000 new Yorkers dying daily for months?

    • You are correct. The CDC data goes like this:

      2018-2019 61,000 (estimate)
      2017-2018 61,000
      2016-2017 38,000

      I don’t see anyone questioning why “flu” deaths nearly doubled 3 years ago. And no one was curious back then.

      I don’t mean to lessen the crisis we’re in. But is it possible this “virus” has been with us much longer than we think. And we simply weren’t motivated to research the problem, until it was too late.

      One more “how come” question: How come we can be supplied almost immediately with “death statistics” pertaining to the Coronavirus crisis, when it takes the CDC nearly 1 year to provide all other “official” death statistics (the reason for my 2018-2019 stats to be called estimates).

      We need to keep one thing in mind here. As long as we insist on worshiping social media, the statistics may only be as accurate as someone else’s imagination.

  • German virologists have tested 80 percent of the population of Gangelt for covid-19 antibodies. Fifteen percent have tested positive, and the death rate is 0.37 percent. That’s heartening.

    If a fraction of the money squandered on ineffective and immoral drug prohibition (which STAT supports) had been spent on preparing for this sort of public health crisis, we’d be fine. Public health specialists now now deal with everything they shouldn’t and can’t (eg, suicide), but not with what they should.

    • If .37% of the population died of coronavirus, and 15% were infected with it, the case fatality rate is still around 2.4%, which if it remains the same, is better than the US rates, but not so much better that it shows the virus is less of a problem for the country as a whole – I mean, if you were one of those people, your chance of dying went down by 1/3 or 1/4, but as far as being a public health disaster, at 2.4% cfr, Gangelt has a disaster, just as the US, at 3.6% cfr has one.

      I have read the original patients in Germany were young people who went to the Italian alps to go skiing, or anyway winter vacation, and came back infected. Being young, a lot more of them made it through OK and the early cfr was low but not now.

      If I misunderstood and you are saying the CFR around Gangelt was .37% that is very good news but it’s so out of line with everything else it is a bit hard to believe.

  • Well, it’s Easter, a special day for Trump. He “said” this virus will be over by Easter and April. For those of us furloughed and who have had pay reductions, we are waiting for it all to miraculously disappear. 😉

    • Steve, President Trump never said that this virus would be over by Easter. What he actually said was that he hoped he could open up a lot of the country by Easter. Typical liberal speak.

    • Trump did say “And again, when you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” on Feb. 26th. A day later he said “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.” Sure, you can point to the fact that he didn’t state a specific time-frame for the miracle to occur. And I will admit that if it disappears tomorrow we can consider that a miracle. One doesn’t need to be a liberal though to doubt that Covid-19 will ever disappear “like a miracle”.

  • I am surprised that no one says that the top priority should be a reliable and quick tests that can be produced quickly. The death for people blow 65 is very low, the highest riks people are the elderly and those with existing respiratory or cardiac conditions. A reliable tests will alow to confined only those infected and those in the highest risk bracket, while increasing our hospital capacity to handle infected people in an efficient manner. A treatment will come on due time and even later a vaccine, but test is quicker and the process to approve it is also much shorter than the one for vaccine and new drugs

  • Much better handled than H1N1 that Pres. Obama allowed to go unchecked for over two years with nearly no reaction from the mainstream media for 18 months since he could do no wrong by their standards, quite differently from how they have treated Pres. Trump whom they have gone so far as to accuse of having investments in hydroxychloroquine, for God’s sake. Can the derangement just STOP?

    • You have the problem you diagnose. Obama was president just a few months when H1N1 spread. An effective vaccine was not immediately available. From April 2009 to April 2010 it killed 12,469, which far fewer than covid-19 has already killed in the US. Obama did not call the virus a “hoax” as Trump has covid-19. I wouldn’t trust Trump to properly understand and manage his own son’s diseases, much less direct the public heath apparatus. His vanity sinks all boats. (I voted for neither Trump nor Obama.)

  • 60,000-240,000 conditional on shutting down the country. The comparison with flu is misguided, because the fatalities from flu are not conditional on shutting down the country. Flu typically infects 3%-11% of the population each year, whereas the attack rate of Covid, in the absence of the extraordinary measures being implemented around the world, would be 40%-80%. Assuming the IFR is 1%, that would lead to millions of deaths in the US.

    Very poor quality reasoning in this article.

  • Thé projected number of deaths from COVID-19 would be in the millions in the US alone if the extraordinary measures being taken were not in place. This is why this pandemic is getting so much attention. The author fails to mention this crucial point.

    • Millions of deaths is based on a vastly inflated IFR. It’s hard to say whether the number of deaths would outnumber the number of deaths from unemployment. Every 1% unemployment generally leads to 10,000 suicides and even more deaths from alcoholism and drug abuse. We really don’t know, though. I was one of the people vocally in favor of massive lockdown. We’ll never know if we were right or not. Clearly, lockdown was at least necessary in NYC… unless the antibody tests reveal that large amounts have already had covid.

    • Are you serious, they already admitted the numbers predicted were way too high, doctors everywhere are saying that most people who get it will be fine, if you are older and or have health problems stay home, By the way I am in my late 70’s and have COPD.

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