It was six month ago this week that Michigan announced its first death from coronavirus. Since then, the state has tallied 6,632 confirmed deaths from coronavirus and another 320 probable deaths.
But the true death toll of the pandemic appears to be thousands of deaths higher, based on “excess death” numbers calculated by the federal Centers for Disease Control.
According to death certificates filed to date, Michigan had 56,301 deaths between March and August. That’s 9,117 more than the 47,184 expected deaths based on the 2017-19 averages for those months — a 19% increase in deaths. And that 9,117 number is expected to grow, since not all the death certificates for July and August have been filed yet.
Those 9,117 deaths are “excess deaths,” in the parlance of public-health officials, a measure of the true toll of the pandemic in Michigan.
The sheer number of excess deaths this year belies the myth that coronavirus death statistics are “fake,” and doctors have been simply assigning coronavirus as the cause of death for people who actually died of other causes, experts say. That conspiracy theory can’t explain why Michigan deaths suddenly started spiking in late March, and why other states have seen similar spikes following a surge of coronavirus cases.
The numbers also underscore another point: The official death toll of 6,532 confirmed coronavirus deaths — or 6,952, if probable deaths are included — may well understate those killed by COVID-19.
Excess death counts “are a pretty established methodology, and I would say it’s much more than accurate than just counting deaths from people who have been tests or have suspected cases,” said Joshua Petrie, an epidemiologist at University of Michigan’s School of Public Health.
Excess death numbers are a way to get at undiagnosed coronavirus deaths, he said, which were especially likely early on the pandemic when there was a scarcity of coronavirus tests and doctors were much less familiar with all the different symptoms associated with the virus, such as how COVID-19 patients can develop blood clots that lead to strokes or heart attacks,
“I think there were undetected cases” that resulted in deaths, he said, a point also made by the CDC and other experts.
Excess death numbers also capture deaths that are an indirect result of the pandemic, such as people who delayed health care for fear of contracting the virus.
Dr. Karen Kent VanGorder, chief medical and quality officer for Lansing-based Sparrow Health System, is certain that such indirect deaths have occurred in the past six months.
“We’re seeing people sick from things other than coronavirus who are showing up much later (for treatment) than we would normally see them,” she said. “They’re coming in sicker, they’re presenting later in the course of their illness. I think people are afraid to seek care.
“So someone has symptoms of a heart attack — they don’t come to the emergency department because they’re afraid,” she said. “The next morning, they do come to the emergency department but it’s too late, and they die of their heart attack. That’s an excess death, for sure.”
Between March and July, the number of heart attack deaths in Michigan increased 5.4% compared to the same period in 2019; deaths from strokes are up 10%; deaths from flu or pneumonia, up 11%, and septicemia deaths, up 15%, state data shows.
Some people have blamed coronavirus-related restrictions for increasing indirect deaths by ordering hospitals to curtail elective appointments and procedures during the height of the pandemic. But Kent VanGorder calls that criticism “ridiculous.”
“There was no government policy that says you can’t come to the hospital if you’re having a heart attack,” she said. “Emergency departments were always open. People did not want to be in them.”
The avoidance of hospitals in recent months also is evidenced by the “sharp increase” in the number of people who have died at home in the past six months, said Dr. Ted Brown, part of the pathology team at the Western Michigan University School of Medicine that serves as medical examiners for 12 Michigan counties. The team is called to examine cases of unexplained or sudden deaths, such as accidents, suicides, homicides or deaths that occur at home
So far in 2020, the team has had about 500 more cases compared to this point in 2019, when it handled 4,000 deaths for the year, Brown said. That’s about a 17% increase.
The fact more people are dying at home is one potential result of the pandemic, Brown said. Another is a significant increase in the number of drug overdoses. “We’ve seen approximately 50 more drug-related deaths in our office this year compared to this time last year,” he said, although the number of deaths ruled as suicide has not increased.
Kent VanGorder said the mental and emotional stress created by the pandemic have taken a toll, as people have lost loved ones to coronavirus or been separated from family and friends because of coronavirus-related restrictions.
“People die of a broken heart” after a loved one dies, she said. “They die of loneliness. They give up. A wife who can’t see her husband of 60 years in a nursing home, what does that do to her well-being?”
To put the 9,117 excess deaths so far in context, it almost totals the number of Michigan residents who died in 2019 of cancer, and it’s five and a half times more than the number who died last year of flu and/or pneumonia.https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
“There are many who think that the pandemic is a hoax,” said Adam London, who heads the Kent County Health Department. “I can assure you and them, it’s not a hoax. It’s not the apocalypse, either, but it is a thing and it’s a serious thing that has seriously harmed a lot of people.”
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