The CDC keeps track of all fatalities in the US on a weekly basis, counting the number from each Sunday to the following Saturday. The week that ended Saturday (June 20) is CDC Week 26. According to the COVID Tracking Project (CTP)1, the total COVID fatalities for Week 26 was 4,203, which was the lowest since Week 13 (ending March 28). That is down about 70% from the highest weekly count in Week 16 (ending April 18) at 14,021.
For the last three years, the US has averaged 51,430 fatalities in Week 26. Therefore, last week’s COVID fatalities are equal to about 8% of the normal fatalities for this time of year. There is a growing divergence between the trendlines for new cases and fatalities. New cases in the US declined slightly during April and May but have been moving higher in June.
A number of commentators have attempted to explain this divergence. The most frequently cited reason is that fatalities are a lagging indicator because of the time between infection and death. However, that 10-20 day delay does not explain fatalities being down by 70% from their peak and new cases by only 10%.
Several states are reporting that new cases are increasingly coming from younger individuals for whom the disease is rarely fatal. That is consistent with the CTP data which shows that the hospitalization rate (i.e. the percentage of those test positive who require hospitalization) has fallen by nearly 3% since its peak. So it may be that due to employment and social circumstances the reopening is exposing that less vulnerable portion of the population to greater infection while seniors are better positioned and more inclined to stay in.
Healthcare professionals are also undoubtedly becoming better at treating the disease resulting in better clinical outcomes. There was a lot of news last week about a common steroid, dexamethasone, having some pretty dramatic therapeutic results. There will likely be more. And it appears that senior living facilities, where about half of the fatalities have occurred, are getting better at protecting their residents.
I suspect that the next few months are going to be a tug-a-war between increasing infections and the factors mitigating the virus’s lethality. Hopefully, the later will continue to prevail.
1 The COVID Tracking Project is a joint effort by a group of journalists who have been collecting COVID data directly from the states as they have been reporting it. The CDC reports two fatality counts. On their dashboard, the CDC reports total estimated fatalities, which includes lab confirmed and suspected COVID cases. In the Excess Deaths estimates, they only report those fatalities reported by the states on death certificates entered into the CDC system by the states. On June 20, the CDC showed 119,055 total fatalities on their dashboard, but only 105,172 in their Excess Death estimates. That compares to 113,452 total fatalities according to the CTP.