On Wednesday, the Indianapolis Star reported that a state audit discovered just over 1,500 “missing” COVID-19 deaths. These deaths were added to the Indiana State Department of Health’s dashboard on Thursday. The state “snuck” them in, not including them in the “newly reported” deaths for that day’s update. Fortunately, I had the data before and after and was able to produce some information on my dashboard.
It wasn’t as good as we thought
The missing deaths stretch as far back as early April, but the bulk came in November through January. This is also when the overall death rate was the highest. On the whole, approximately 15% of COVID-19 deaths were not included on the state’s dashboard prior to February 4. But on 48 days, the missing deaths exceeded 20%. On December 18, 31 deaths (29% of the total) were missing. Instead of having a peak death count of 97, we’ve instead exceeded 100 deaths on several days with a peak of 118.
I wrote in the last update that I thought deaths were missing, particularly given the abrupt drop in December. It turns out that I was more right than I could have imagined. “I’m not trying to sound like a conspiracy theorist,” I wrote. “I don’t think there was any malfeasance.” I’m trying very hard to continue believing that.
At the very least, this represents appalling incompetence. This isn’t just a problem for making graphs. The death toll of this pandemic is serious. Losing 15% of the deaths is not only disrespectful to the dead and their families, but it robs decision-makers of reliable data. What decisions would have been made differently if we knew the true death toll.
Of course, we may never be sure of the true death toll, particularly early in the pandemic. At the time, testing was scarce. I’ve heard anecdotes from several reliable friends of loved ones not getting testing after death. We can compare 2020’s overall death to previous years, but that will not be definitive.
The good news is that the overall numbers continue to trend in the right direction. Yesterday, hospitalizations were below 1500 for the first time since October 20. Deaths, new cases, hospitalization, and positivity all continue to drop. Mask usage is up and mobility remains 20% below the baseline, per the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). Perversely, the corrected death totals represent a positive of sorts: the recent model runs have proven more accurate than it appeared.
As best I can tell, IHME’s most recent model run did not include the adjusted death totals, so it will be interesting to see how much changes in the next update. The observed death trend is dropping at a faster rate than the models would suggest, but that may flatten a bit over the coming days. Still, the trends are encouraging.
Causes for concern
But all is not well. Although IHME’s latest model run does not show an increase in deaths through the end of May, they say some states will see that. But even more worrying, it appears some of the new variants may lead to reinfection in people who already have immunity.
The Novavax Phase III trial in South Africa placebo arm found that prior infectionIHME COVID-19 Policy Brief for the United States, 3 February 2021
provided no protection from variant B.1.351. The implication of this finding is that herd
immunity is only variant-specific; if this finding is confirmed in the Johnson & Johnson
placebo arm data, our worse scenario is likely too optimistic.
With the next update, IHME will incorporate cross-variant reinfection into the model. I’ll continue to update my dashboard with the new model runs as they’re available.