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.
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.