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Are U.S. coronavirus deaths overcounted?

By COVIDJanuary, 2021January 18th, 20244 min read

Before I get into the topic at hand, welcome to the first official post of “50 Shades of Dave”. I’m pushing back against the polarisation in the world and embracing the unknown grey area in between. I’m especially pissed off at the way people use statistics to tell whatever story they want, so expect to read stories that look deeper than the headlines and throw-away comments that spark social media arguments.

I’ve been posting about this sort of thing on Facebook for years, and may import some back posts. In the meantime, on to today’s topic.

Here’s the executive summary: Trump says it’s day. Some official says it’s night. In fact, it’s late afternoon and the sun is hovering over the horizon. That’s probably an oft repeated pattern in the media.

Trump’s tweet said that US COVID deaths are “far exaggerated”, to which Fauci responded that “The deaths are real deaths”, and that hospitals are indeed packed and health workers are under pressure.

Stories like this would have you thinking it’s either one or the other – that exactly one of Fauci or Trump is lying. Let’s look at both statements.

Different countries and states have different criteria for determining what is a “COVID death”.

For example, in Australia, where things have gone remarkably well, we had a second wave during which some 80% of the deaths were in aged care. Every person who died received a COVID test, and if found to be positive, they were added to the count. Did they die of COVID or with COVID? We don’t actually know. This methodology would have resulted in significant overcounting of COVID deaths. Ah, but how many? Still, we don’t actually know.

Here’s a counter example, related to me by a doctor friend. Patient comes in for a scan, saying they were supposed to get one six months earlier, but everything was locked down because of COVID, so they delayed. The scan shows that the patient is riddled with cancer, and will die. I’d call that a COVID death. What is the health cost of the thousands of people who have deferred regular scans? Again, we will never know.

What does this mean? That the definition of COVID death is fuzzy. But let’s say it’s out by 10-20% … is that material? If instead of 350 thousand deaths, it’s ‘only’ 320 thousand, does that change anything? Of course not!

Trump suggesting the number is “far exaggerated” might be statistically correct, but really such a statement just undermines trust in the health officials, and allows space for conspiracy theorists to go wild. It’s irresponsible.

Fauci’s response that the deaths are real, and that the health system is under stress is also correct. He didn’t directly address Trump’s claim on death numbers being overcounted. Rather, his statement is intended to deflect the conspiracy theorists who don’t believe people are actually dying in large numbers.

The story headline leads one to think that they are disputing the COVID death count, but in fact they are arguing over whose narrative the public should trust. That is the story behind the story.

So are COVID deaths being exaggerated? Probably, but it’s actually not what we should be arguing about.

After Fauci rejects Trump’s claim that the US COVID deaths are “far-exaggerated”, David examines the statistics of COVID and how the death count differ because of the different criteria use by various countries

This was alsoposted at [Substack].

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