A measuring tape (Image: Alexander Bedrin/Thinkstock)

One problem for life insurance, health insurance and annuity professionals with an interest in the effects of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) on mortality is that public health officials  keep playing whack-a-mole with terminology and data.

The virus is SARS-CoV-2. SARS-CoV-2 causes a disease called COVID-19.

COVID-19 is a kind of pneumonia. SARS-CoV-2 also seems to cause heart damage, kidney damage, and, possibly, brain damage. Maybe officials will call all of those other manifestations of SARS-CoV-2 by the name COVID-19. Maybe, eventually, the other faces of SARS-CoV-2 will get their own names.

Data Beyond Compare

Officials sometimes report COVID-19 numbers by the day, by the week, by the month, or by some other period.

Sometimes, officials describe how the numbers have changed from day-to-day. Sometimes, they simply give the latest totals. Observers who want to know how the numbers have changed since the last report have to dig up the old report and do the math.

Sometimes, officials break the numbers down in terms of four-week periods. Other times, they use calendar months, in such a way that trying to compare the numbers for, say, a 28-day period in March 2020 with a 31-day calendar month in March 2018 is not exactly a statistically respectable thing to do.

Here, we tried to power past statistical respectability and come up with rough numbers to help start to answer this question: How many COVID-19 deaths in a state, in a given month, would be a lot of deaths, when compared with that state’s usual number of deaths per month, or that state’s number of typical number of influenza and pneumonia deaths?

The National Center for Health Statistics has now tried to bring some order to U.S. COVID-19 statistics by starting to publish a table of death count data based on the death certificate data in the National Vital Statistics System.

That data can be compared with the monthly U.S. mortality data in the Underlying Cause of Death database. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the parent of the National Center for Health Statistics, manages that database. The data now in that database extend only until the end of 2018.

Resources

  • The CDC’s Underlying Cause of Death database is available here.
  • The CDC’s latest COVID-19 and pneumonia mortality numbers are available here.
  • An article about how a securities analyst is thinking about COVID-19 mortality is available here.

The 2020 numbers cover the period from Feb. 1 through March 28.

The (somewhat) roughly comparable figures in the Underlying Cause of Death database cover February and March in 2018.

In the COVID-19 surveillance report, National Center for Health Statistics officials give data for pneumonia deaths as well as for COVID-19 deaths, because many of the early COVID-19 deaths have been recorded as pneumonia deaths.

The Numbers

In 2018, 485,803 people died in February and March. About 6,120 of those people, or 3%, were classified as having died of influenza or pneumonia.

From Feb. 1 through March 28 of this year, 435,808 people died. About 1,150 were classified as having died of COVID-19, and 23,729 were classified as having died of the flu or pneumonia.

About 5.2% of all of the Americans who died in February and March of this year died of the flu or pneumonia.

The COVID-19 numbers for 2020 are best compared with the pneumonia and flu death total just for March 2018, because almost all of the COVID-19 deaths took place this past March.

In general, if all types of flu and pneumonia deaths combined were about as common this past March as in March 2020, one would expect the new pneumonia death figures to roughly twice as big as the March 2018 flu and pneumonia death totals.

The percentage of death resulting from flu or pneumonia from Feb. 1 through March 28 ranged from 3.3%, in Rhode Island, to 7.6%, in New York state.

At this point, the COVID-19 death rate does not appear to be comparable to the death rate recorded during the 1918 flu pandemic. In 1918, for example, New York City had a population of 5.2 million, and a weekly peak death toll of 5,222. This year, New York state has a population of 20 million, and the total number of COVID-19 deaths recorded since March 1 is about 5,200.

For data on all 50 states and the District of Columbia, see the table below.

How the Recent Pneumonia Death Count Compares With Two Comparison Indicators

One of the comparison benchmarks is the number of all deaths for the same period — Feb. 1 through March 28. The other benchmark is the influenza and pneumonia death total for March 2018.

COVID-19 Deaths, Feb. 1- March 28 All Pneumonia Deaths, Feb. 1-March 28 2020 Pneumonia Deaths As a Percentage of All 2020 Deaths Influenza and Pneumonia Deaths, March 2018
Alabama 0                408 5.0%              101
Alaska 0                  23 3.9%                 -
Arizona 0                523 5.0%              118
Arkansas 0                269 5.0%                61
California 54             3,136 6.7%              761
Colorado 21                334 4.8%                82
Connecticut 0                   - -                98
Delaware 0                  50 4.5%                27
District of Columbia 0                  58 6.3%  -
Florida 38             1,899 5.1%              301
Georgia 13                570 4.5%              149
Hawaii 0                118 6.2%                51
Idaho 1                110 4.6%                34
Illinois 9             1,155 6.2%              277
Indiana 0                599 5.6%              123
Iowa 0                295 5.9%                67
Kansas 3                240 5.4%                78
Kentucky 0                389 6.3%                91
Louisiana 44                258 3.8%                66
Maine 0                178 6.7%                38
Maryland 5                502 5.8%              116
Massachusetts 6                663 6.7%              163
Michigan 11                796 5.0%              199
Minnesota 4                407 5.3%                62
Mississippi 0                342 6.5%                82
Missouri 6                486 4.8%              161
Montana 0                  66 4.4%                30
Nebraska 0                159 6.4%                62
Nevada 2                202 4.6%                54
New Hampshire 1                109 5.0%                40
New Jersey 43                694 5.3%              123
New Mexico 0                155 5.6%                39
New York 180             1,343 7.6%              448
New York City 579 1,012 5.3% -
North Carolina 0                151 4.9%              213
North Dakota 0                  74 6.6%                15
Ohio 0                676 4.0%              250
Oklahoma 0                365 6.3%                71
Oregon 5                230 4.2%                68
Pennsylvania 19                880 5.0%              328
Rhode Island 0                  50 3.3%                19
South Carolina 1                369 4.4%                72
South Dakota 1                  70 5.5%                32
Tennessee 0                715 5.8%              156
Texas 6             1,825 5.6%              301
Utah 1                168 5.1%                37
Vermont 1                  42 4.6%                12
Virginia 4                459 3.9%              125
Washington 92                561 5.7%              114
West Virginia 0                140 5.5%                65
Wisconsin 0                376 4.1%              126
Wyoming 0                  42 5.8%                14
TOTAL        1,150           23,729           6,120
MEDIAN 5.2%
Source: National Center for Health Statistics, COVID-19 report for April 3; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Underlying Cause of Death database.

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