Fauci Says U.S. Death Toll Is Likely Higher. Other COVID-19 Stats Need Adjusting, Too
The U.S. has the most coronavirus deaths of any country in the world — on May 11, the death toll passed 80,000.
And that's likely an undercount.
"Almost certainly it's higher," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at a virtual Senate hearing on Tuesday. "There may have been people who died at home who were not counted as COVID because they never really got to the hospital."
It's not just the death toll that's likely higher. Medical statisticians say we have been undercounting cases since the pandemic started — not only in the U.S. but also around the world. That's because in countries rich and poor and in between, people who contract COVID-19 are not necessarily diagnosed — because of the shortage of tests and the difficulty of getting tested in some parts of the world, especially remote spots.
So you should keep in mind certain caveats as you consider the endless stream of numbers.
Here's what we know about some of the most frequently discussed data points.
Total confirmed cases
What we want this to tell us: How many people have had COVID-19.
What it actually tells us: How many people have tested positive for the live virus (the most common way of being diagnosed) or, in some cases, been diagnosed based on symptoms. The actual number of people who have had COVID-19 is probably higher.
Daily case counts
What we want this to tell us: Is the number of new cases of COVID-19 rising or falling over time?
What it tells us: How many cases are reported on each day and how that number compares with previous days. Only in areas where large numbers of people are tested regularly could the curve of daily case counts be considered a reliable marker of spread or containment.
What we want this to tell us: How many people have died from COVID-19 from the start of the outbreak until now.
What it tells us: How many people have died with the official cause of death listed as "COVID-19" — excluding those who died of the disease but were not identified as COVID-19 casualties. These numbers generally represent a conservative count of deaths and will likely be revised upward on review. But they are probably more accurate than case counts. "The [under]reporting issue for death numbers is less severe than case numbers, but it still exists," says Sen Pei, a public health research scientist at Columbia University.
Death rate for coronavirus patients
What we want this to tell us: How likely are people who get COVID-19 to die from it?
What it tells us: The total number of reported deaths divided by the total number of confirmed cases — both of which could be undercounts.
Recovery rate for coronavirus patients
What we want this to tell us: How many people who have contracted COVID-19 recover.
What it tells us: How many people who have been officially diagnosed with COVID-19 have kicked the virus.
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