The worldwide COVID-19 death toll is more than double the official count of 3.24 million, a controversial new study estimates, and the U.S. is no exception.
More than 905,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the U.S., 57% more than the official tally, researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington said Thursday in a new analysis. That’s more than any other country.
The official U.S. toll is about 580,000, according to Johns Hopkins University statistics.
Worldwide the total is close to 7 million, which is more than double the official toll of 3.24 million, as recorded by Johns Hopkins University.
Looking at excess mortality between March 2020 through May 3, 2021, the researchers compared that to what would normally happen in a year without a pandemic, then made allowances for ancillary pandemic-related factors. They were left with, they said, numbers reflecting solely deaths from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
“As terrible as the COVID-19 pandemic appears, this analysis shows that the actual toll is significantly worse,” Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation director Dr. Chris Murray said in a statement announcing the findings. “Understanding the true number of COVID-19 deaths not only helps us appreciate the magnitude of this global crisis, but also provides valuable information to policymakers developing response and recovery plans.”
He emphasized at a news conference Thursday morning that the omissions were not necessarily made on purpose.
“Mostly, it’s just unintentional missing, when health systems get hard hit,” Murray said, according to The Seattle Times. “We also see that underreporting got particularly bad in December, when the winter surge started to unfold and holidays meant reporting systems were not functioning at full capabilities.”
Several other countries’ totals fell at least 400,000 below the official numbers, the researchers said. India, with an actual 654,395 as compared to its reported total of 221,181, stood in particular stark contrast given the unfolding crisis there.
While some welcomed the study as a more accurate indication of the true cost in lives of the pandemic, others saw potential hyperbole.
“I think that the overall message of this (that deaths have been substantially undercounted and in some places more than others) is likely sound, but the absolute numbers are less so for a lot of reasons,” Harvard University epidemiologist William Hanage told NPR.
“Their estimate of excess deaths is enormous and inconsistent with our research and others,” said Dr. Steven Woolf, who led a previous study, told NPR. “There are a lot of assumptions and educated guesses built into their model.”
At the very least, Murray noted, the findings point to the ongoing, and most likely underestimated, impact of this scourge.
“The analysis just shows how challenging it has been during the pandemic to accurately track the deaths — and actually, transmission — of COVID,” he said in the researchers’ statement. “And by focusing in on the total COVID death rate, I think we bring to light just how much greater the impact of COVID has been already and may be in the future.”