Comment Of The Day: “The Pandemic Creates A Classic And Difficult Ethics Conflict, But The Resolution Is Clear, Part II: The Amazing Vanishing Johns Hopkins Study”

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If Ethics Alarms has ever had more useful, substantive and valuable Comment of the Day than what Rich in Ct submitted in response to “The Pandemic Creates A Classic And Difficult Ethics Conflict, But The Resolution Is Clear, Part II: The Amazing Vanishing Johns Hopkins Study,” I can’t recall it. I’m going to dispense with my usual introductory remarks to let Rich take over. From here on it’s all him.

***

So I watched Dr. Briand’s webinar; it’s only 40 minutes if anyone else wishes to. (Disclaimer, I am not a medical nor public health professional, but neither is Dr. Briand).

I am not convinced by her analysis. I checked her original data sources, and found serious issues. Dr. Briand states that there is no evidence in the data that COVID is causing “excessive deaths”, but a chart I developed from the same data shows hundreds of thousands more deaths in 2020 compared to prior years. While COVID may not be the immediate cause of all these deaths, it appears to be a significant contributing factor.

The first chart in the PDF of the article about her work shows that the relative ages of people who died are consistent week to week from before and through the pandemic. I don’t take any issue with that conclusion. She states in the webinar there is an average of roughly 60K deaths week-to-week; this average seems reasonable.

However, this chart is misleading; while the percentage week-to-week is not changing, the total numbers of deaths do change considerably week-to-week, as I will show in a chart of my own developed from the same data.

One thing I really appreciated about her webinar is that she showed exactly where she got her data from the CDC website. So I downloaded the exact same dataset (possibly a few weeks newer). I focused on her second analysis reexamining the chart titled “US Deaths per Week and Causes”, (the second chart in the pdf).

The focus of her analysis was on whether deaths were being reclassified as COVID. Some of her points are valid and worthy of further analysis. The field of ecomonics, her area of expertise, is to look at data for new trends in hopes of benefiting from the new knowledge. Looking at the minutia of data can reveal important insights.

However looking at data at too low a level can blind you bigger trends. So I took a step away and looked at total deaths due to all causes. My interest is in the week-to-week variations in deaths.

This is the chart I produced, using the same raw data as Dr. Briand’s second chart:

The chart focuses on Total Deaths due to “All Causes” in the United States. The years 2014-2019 are shown in various colors; 2020 is shown in bright pink. (2020 Data is of course incomplete due to the year not being complete). It is organized by week number, which is how the data is presented. I added the approximate month breaks for reference.

What we see is from 2014-2019, average deaths peaked in the winter, at or near 60K and dip in the summer to about 50K. Each year, there are slightly more deaths for each equivalent week.

What is sharply notable about 2020 is that weekly total deaths in 2020 are higher every week than every other year except for roughly January 2018. The number of deaths in 2020 is dramatically higher from mid-March until the present day (November 2020). There was a peak of 79K deaths in mid-April, and a plateau of 64K in late summer; these are +24K and +12K more deaths per week compared to the same weeks in 2019.

One quote from the article about Dr. Briand just does not hold up to scrutiny:

Briand also noted that 50,000 to 70,000 deaths are seen both before and after COVID-19, indicating that this number of
deaths was normal long before COVID-19 emerged. Therefore, according to Briand, not only has COVID-19 had no effect on
the percentage of deaths of older people, but it has also not increased the total number of deaths.

I am using the same data as Dr. Briand, and I am not seeing those numbers. Deaths in 2020 are clearly anomalous compared to the past 6 years. That statement seems to be erroneous.

Based on data available to date, my non-scientific projection is that 2020 will have at least 280K more deaths from all causes than 2019 (see notes). This is number is consistent with “excess mortality” of 300K calculated to date by the CDC. The 280K is also similar to the the current number of deaths to date attributed to COVID according to current CDC criteria (the subject of another post by Jack).

Based on my reading of the data, something is causing nearly 300K more deaths in 2020 compared to prior years. According to Dr. Briand’s numbers, this trend effects all ages equally, as the percentage of deaths haven’t changed.

COVID may not be the immediate cause of death, but it certainly appears to be a significant factor increasing total deaths.

Notes:

The 280K increase compared to 2019 is an underestimate, as it holds the last 7 weeks constant, and does not account for the seasonal increase seen in November-December of previous years.

I created a similar analysis for “All Natural Causes”, but the trends are substantially similar. There are roughly 5K “non-natural” deaths every week, reducting the chart lines by the same amount each week. However, 2020 would have approximately 350K more “natural deaths” compared to 2019.

9 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “The Pandemic Creates A Classic And Difficult Ethics Conflict, But The Resolution Is Clear, Part II: The Amazing Vanishing Johns Hopkins Study”

  1. The question that hasn’t been answered is how many of those deaths occurred because people didn’t seek medical care when needed. The suicide rate has increased and those numbers need to be considered. This is going to be a challenge collecting the data for any analyst and we’re not going to be able to understand this for some time.

    • Possibly the only place where Twitter’s character limit is beneficial… Check out https://twitter.com/EthicalSkeptic

      I’d link his webpage, but Twitter’s format makes his watermelons of analysis and wordplay into relative bite-size pieces. You’d need a master’s degree to parse most of his analysis, but at its essence, you take the number of expected deaths per year, subtract that from those that happened this year, and you wind up with COVID+lockdown+hysteria deaths.

      Now subtract those attributable to COVID, (ignoring the political thumb on this scale for now) and look at the rest.

      Disturbingly, at the low point this past month, the lockdown+hysteria number equaled COVID and was growing at an increasing rate. The treatment was just as bad as the disease.

    • Right. Something like 7300 people die every day in the United States, a country of approximately 330,000,000 people. Think of all the blood Trump has on his hands for all these deaths! After all, the government is supposed to guarantee life. It’s right there in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, or somewhere. Since religion is now verboten, it’s up to the government to provide eternal life.

      • You are correct in that 7100 to 8500 die every day on average in an ordinary year in summer and winter respectively. This results in 7300-7800 overall daily averages from 2014-2019. However 2020 will see a much higher average daily death rate than prior years.

        Accurately understanding what happing in 2020 is critical towards developing an ethical response.

        In 2020, 10,600 people were dying everyday in the spring; roughly 3000 more daily than usual. In the summer, 8400 people were dying; an increase of 1300 more than usual. This is a 20%-30% increase.

        In 2019, 2,850,000 people died, an average of 7800 daily. In 2020, roughly 3,130,000 will die, an average of 8600 daily; an increase of 800 per day or 10% more than 2019. In comparison, mortality increased about 1% each year for the prior 5 years.

        The response to this observed increase in mortality is of course a matter of judgement, but the first step is to accurately describe the situation.

  2. You might be wrong, but your figures agree with the ones I have been stating for the last few weeks.

    What you have done though is to give your reasons. I just relied on Australian epedimiological analysis of CDC, HHS, State, and where we could get it, county data.

    BTW the US figures for hospitalisations are … well.. rubbish, inconsistent with each other. A private hospital in county A uses a different metric from a state one in county A, neither use metrics used in county B, none of the metrics are the ones the state they are in uses this week, and state reports to CDC and HHS differ too as they use different criteria.

    The switch from having the CDC gather the data to HHS – which then outsourced it to 2 different firms using different metrics – really screwed things up.

    Predicting how many resources are required, PPE, additional personnel etc, is impossible to do even roughly accurately.

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