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.

  • I saw in the on line NYT that already more than 70.000 lives in China had been saved due to improved air quality. I am not sure what figures we should believe coming out of China but still it seems to me that you win some and you lose some.

  • Covid-19,unlike stroke and heart disease is infectious,thereby being a concern due to the number of individuals a single person can infect.

  • Hi Nad,

    You bring up an interesting point, that should make us all, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, return to the Old Testament. There we were, thinking we were such a great country, but treating sojourners, many of them Bible fearing themselves, not with love, but as if they were diseased, and should be shunned. Now we’re the real diseased ones, in an eye for an eye, dark side of the Golden Rule.

  • Showing a magnitude is interesting in the last decade when population size is comparable. Seeing the 1918 Spanish flu at 675,000 makes me want to pull population size from that year. Still, I like how you put it in perspective.

  • Nad— “Facts rule”? You do not have a single fact in your post. Not one. Not even part of a fact.

  • More than half a million people have tested positive in the U.S. Most Americans continue to think the battle against the coronavirus outbreak is going badly, and few would feel comfortable being out in crowded spaces now, however my family coming over next week and I would like to buy a masks for all but I can’t find anywhere. Any suggestions?

    • Thank you so much! Still, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended last Friday that people should wear cloth face coverings in public settings, especially in areas with higher confirmed cases. This guidance comes in light of increasing evidence that some people with coronavirus don’t have symptoms, and that others can transmit the coronavirus even before their symptoms start to show up.

  • “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

    Hubert Horatio Humphrey Jr.

  • The shut down and destruction of an economy, because older people may die, is criminal. I will fight for a life of a child, a twenty year old, even a thirty year old, but anyone older, which I am, is collateral damage. When did it become unacceptable for an old person to die. I believe because of this, we will see an even greater increase of death to younger people, since they will have economic challenges. For ever percentage point increase to unemployment, there are 10,000 suicides. Yet the 80 YO will collect his retirement, what the hell gone wrong in this world. News flash, the older you get, the higher risk of death. The more crap you eat, the more obese you are, the more sedentary you are, the higher risk of death. You had a choice, hamburger or your life, you chose wrong. Should have gone for that run, or at least a walk.

    • Wow — the angel of death makes her point. Any time we want, we can start putting cyanide in the IVs at nursing homes for you. We’ll think about it, see if we can get it through Congress. How about for now, we keep Covid-19 deaths to a minimum instead?

    • You are correct Deborah, We MUST take into account the pain, suffering and death associated with this shut down. I’m over 60 and disabled from an autoimmune disease. It’s up to me to manage the risk while accepting that my children’s generation need to carry on living. The massive spending associated with the shut down will be paid for by their generation effectively STEALING their fute prosperity!

    • My husband is an ICU physician in Boston. You may not care whether old people die, but I seriously doubt you would want them to die in the way that he describes when he comes home. This is a horrible illness that doesn’t just kill old people – it kills healthy people in their 30s and 40s as well. Further, loosen the restrictions that are successfully flattening the curve too soon, and see what happens to both the economy and the healthcare system. Italy is an instructive case, and it isn’t pretty.

  • Can someone please explain why it is so evidently difficult to mass produce an effective Covid test that can provide rapid results? Just what is the problem?

  • someone dies every 1\2 seconds. 2\3 of them are older and just die. 150000 people die daily. these are real numbers that happen without flu or corona. now look at the numbers and ask is a worldwide lockdown smart or stupid. to me it is way stoopid! to cancel concerts and sports is horrible and making businesses close is way worse than letting it go and doing nothing. if anything should have been done is lockdown the old people or sick people only. if stores remained open late distancing would be easier and it would be easier for elderly people to have a time to shop safely. the cancelled events provide jobs and support lives and are attended by younger folks. this is so stupid to kill the stock market, struggling businesses that this will end followed by trillions of dollars being thrown away as a result. plus the way they are spending it they will need to triple the money spent. they could have said nobody needs to pay rent this month and resume next month as normal no make up pay. then would be free and rent money would cover basic bills and food for three weeks and wouldn’t have to wait for checks. that and freezing the stock market during the crisis to resume as is when lockdown ends. to me that seems like that would have helped people and economy with no actual money spent and loans being extended a month longer the banks wouldn’t lose either and no bailouts needed. all this to save people that are already dying

    • Boris Johnson famously kept shaking hands and ended up in ICU.

      The people dying because of Covid-19 were not already dying.

    • He surely did not enjoy his time in ICU. But no, my point was not fully made. He obviously caught the virus while he was shaking hands, and then kept shaking hands, becoming most likely a serial killer who made many others sick in ICU too.

      Why the denial?

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