Study: COVID-19 Death Count Doesn’t Capture ‘True Mortality Effects’

By John Commins

The United States recorded 200,000 deaths from COVID-19 this week, but a new study this week suggests that the grim milestone does not fully reflect the effect of the disease.

A study by researchers at the University of South Florida and published in the Journal of Public Health suggests that measuring “years of life lost” is a better metric than deaths, because it accounts for the range of ages of the people who’ve died from COVID-19.

“While death counts are a vital initial measure of the extent of COVID-19 mortality, they do not provide information regarding the age profile of those who died,” said lead author Troy Quast, professor of health economics in the USF College of Public Health.

“By contrast, years of life lost tell us the extent to which deaths are occurring across age groups and can potentially help healthcare providers and policymakers better target clinical and governmental responses to reduce the number of deaths,” he said.

Using a tool is often used to determine the effects of non-communicable disease, drug misuse and suicide, the researchers found that for every U.S. COVID-19 death, an average of nearly 10 years of life had been lost.

The USF researchers obtained data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that report COVID-19 death counts by sex, age and state from Feb. 1 to July 11, during which there had been roughly 130,000 COVID-19 deaths reported.

They compared the ages at death to life expectancies by age and gender from the U.S. Social Security Administration and to population data from the U.S. Census Bureau and calculated that COVID-19 had caused 1.2 million years of life lost during that timeframe.

While the analysis only covered the period through mid-July, if past trends were to have continued, that figure at this point would approach 2 million, Quast said.

Researchers adjusted for the higher rate of pre-existing conditions among COVID-19 deaths by reducing expected life expectancy by 25%.

Close to 80% of U.S. COVID-19 deaths are among people ages 65 and older. Another significant factor is pre-existing medical conditions. Men have more pre-existing medical conditions than women and accounted for 55% of deaths attributed to COVID-19

Measuring COVID-19 deaths has been difficult due to evolving diagnostic criteria, testing supply constraints and the uncertainties that occur in over-burdened intensive care units. Quast says it’s vital to continue monitoring years of life lost due to COVID-19 to help policy makers and health care providers better understand the extent of the outbreak.

John Commins is a content specialist and online news editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.