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-196 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 masks7, and reminding them to stay physically apart. This week, when the lower estimate (from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation) dropped to 60,0008, 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.

advertisement

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

Support STAT: 9If you value our coronavirus coverage, please consider making a one-time contribution to support our journalism. 9

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).

advertisement

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.

Leave a Comment

Please enter your name.
Please enter a comment.

  • Not all covid deaths are additive. As Dr. Brix told the country, if someone dies WITH covid, it is listed as a covid death. So if any of the people who die from “diseases or natural causes” test positive they are attributed to covid. There are also reports that some doctors are told to list it as covid without confirmation if they even suspect it.

  • Almost 2 million Coronavirus Cases. People should wear a mask when they go out in public during the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended. The only problem is where do I get it?

    • You made my day Debra, I’ve been looking for this for weeks! Appreciate that so much! We hear about the rising number of deaths, the increasing rate of infections, the mental anguish, the shortages of critical supplies in hospitals, the people struggling to pay bills and survive, the long lines at food banks and so much more.

    • I made my own mask, using a folded cloth napkin and 2 hair bands to loop around the ears. Works perfectly. You can find how-to videos online. The N95 masks are still in short supply for the front line nurses and doctors.

  • Some of you are using circular logic. The numbers are lower because of the “overreaction” … if steps weren’t taken this thing would have been 6 figure deaths and still could be through stupidity in the coming months. I live in an area where hospitals are full and it is having a drastic impact. Won’t happen elsewhere? Sure, that’s the way infectious disease works lol. It’s just the bad people in a few north east states I guess…

    • They aren’t over capacity anywhere. What news outlet told you that? may I suggest Questioning everything? and search for local news from your area does it match with national reported numbers? Yes bad people who vote democrat tend to live in large dense cities. What’s the drastic impact? Oh you mean the shutdown? Well between the forced job loss and the resulting deaths from recession or depression, compared to the real data we have now (even though deaths attributed to corona is inflated)…that still puts us where already, the cure is worse than the disease.

A roundup of STAT’s top stories of the day in science and medicine

Privacy Policy
If you click this button, Facebook will be able to track your visit to this site.
If you click this button, Facebook will be able to track your visit to this site.
If you click this button, Facebook will be able to track your visit to this site.