SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — It’s hard to know the true impact of the coronavirus pandemic. With testing challenges and unknowns in the beginning, experts said the full toll of COVID-19 is hard to tally, but mortality rates may shed new light.
“I think over time we will start to recognize that the impact of COVID-19 goes beyond the actual disease,” said Dr. Angela Dunn, State Epidemiologist, Utah Department of Health.
More people are dying in Utah from causes linked to COVID-19 than just those who get the virus, Dunn said.
It affects mortality rates in complex and far-reaching ways. Comparing the overall deaths in 2020 to the average may provide some clues.
When The New York Times compared all deaths from March 15 through July 11 to normal rates over the past three years, they found 190,600 “excess” deaths in the United States — 400 of those here in Utah. That’s 188 more than Utah’s official COVID-19 death count as of July 11, of 212.
“When you look at excess death rates, we’re not looking at individual deaths, it’s just the trend, so it’s hard to go back and say how many were due to COVID or not,” Dunn said.
Experts believe counting “excess deaths,” or deaths above the average, is the best way to assess the pandemic’s impact in real time and to account for deaths caused by other impacts from the virus. And, according to the Times, “In many states with excess deaths, the total number of them exceeded the official number of measured COVID-19 deaths.”
In Utah, they found a gap of 200 more excess deaths than the total reported from COVID-19, arguing virus deaths are underreported, and that this undermines arguments the pandemic is only killing vulnerable people who would have died anyway.
KSL did our own analysis, with vital statistics data from the Utah Department of Health Over the past three years. An average of 9,932 people have died in Utah during the months of January through June. Overall deaths in Utah (10,318) were definitely higher in 2020 — 386 more than the average and 476 more than last year.
The six-year average of total deaths for the first six months of the year in Utah is 9,619, that’s 699 excess deaths.
But can that all be attributed to the pandemic?
“For Utah, the number is not enough that I would be confident in saying it’s statistically significant,” said Michael Holimgshaus, senior demographer for the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
Hollingshaus, a population expert, said many variables could account for that rise.
“Utah’s deaths have been increasing every year for a while because the population is getting bigger, because it’s been growing so fast, so you would expect that to increase,” he said.
We’re also getting older.
Still, Dunn said most of the excess deaths are likely because people aren’t getting healthcare for other conditions.
“Individuals are not seeking emergency care as much as they would have before, and we can see that through lower EMS calls,” Dunn said.
She said there has not been a coronavirus outbreak in any Utah hospital, and it’s safe to be treated in emergency rooms and other hospital departments for any condition. She also said the data shows that it’s not only vulnerable people who are dying and our behavior could save lives.
“We are all vulnerable, that’s why it’s so important that we all take precautions of physical distancing and mask wearing because this is something that can impact us all. If it’s not the virus itself, it could be something else,” Dunn said.
Taking steps today to protect our future.
Doctors urged everyone to still make those well-check visits, even during the pandemic. They said hospitals and clinics are taking extra precautions to keep everyone safe.
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