Commentary January 04, 2022 at 07:44 AM Share & Print
The new COVID-19 pandemic wave has been swamping hospital emergency rooms, filling intensive care units, and burning out health care workers in some parts of the country.
The first U.S. mortality numbers for the week ending Dec. 25, 2021, suggest that pressure on hospitals could now be increasing the number of deaths related to causes other than COVID-19.
The number of reported deaths caused by COVID-19 and two similar conditions, influenza and pneumonia, was 83% higher than the number in the comparable report for the week ending Dec. 26, 2020.
The number of reported deaths caused by other factors increased 22%.
The number of extra deaths caused by “everything else” appeared to be about 75% of the number of deaths caused by COVID-19 and COVID-19-like illnesses.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mortality from other causes is of keen interest to life insurers, because all excess mortality affects life insurance death benefit totals. If the omicron variant of COVID-19 causes few deaths but limits people’s ability to get urgently needed care for other causes, the indirect effects on people with serious conditions other than COVID-19 could keep life insurers’ claim costs high.
The Early Death Data
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts its very newest overall weekly national death figures in the pneumonia and influenza epidemic tracking tables in its weekly FluView reports.
State public health agencies send only about one-third of their death data to the CDC team that creates the provisional death data tables within a week after the deaths occur. The CDC backfills the death statistics as a flu season goes on.
To try to compensate for the data reporting delays, we compared death data in the latest FluView report, for the week ending Dec. 25, 2021, with the data the CDC used a year earlier, in the FluView report for the week ending Dec. 26, 2020.
The Raw Numbers
For a typical week before COVID-19 came along, the CDC reported fewer than 52,000 U.S. deaths, once it had complete data.
The CDC included data on a total of just 17,647 deaths for the latest week in the provisional death data table accompanying the Dec. 25, 2021, FluView report, compared with 13,580 in the Dec. 26, 2020, FluView report.
Once the CDC backfills the data, the final death numbers for the week ending Dec. 25, 2021, are likely to be at least three times higher than the current numbers.
The number of deaths included in the early data that were caused by COVID-19 and COVID-19-like conditions increased to 3,381, from 1,848 a year earlier.
The number of deaths in the early data that were caused by other factors increased to 14,266, from 11,723 — meaning that the number of deaths in the early data caused by “everything else” was about 2,500 higher than a year earlier.
If the final excess death number is three times higher than the current number, once all death information is in, that would imply that the number of people dying from “everything else” was 7,500 higher than a year earlier.
One sign the increase could be due to pressure on hospitals, rather than a spike in flu, a spike in accidents or other factors, is that, based on the provisional death tables used in the FluView reports, the number of deaths from “everything else” reported for the first 50 weeks of 2021 increased just 0.5%, to 2.63 million, from 2.62 million for the first 50 weeks of 2020.
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