Understanding the COVID-19 death toll

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced this week that a staggering 200,000 Americans have died from COVID-19.

But the death toll has become a source of some controversy after the president shared a theory earlier this month that less than 10,000 people had died from the virus. The theory is based on CDC data that found that in only 6% of deaths was COVID-19 listed as the only cause of death with no contributing factors.

Doctors and public health experts have pushed back against the idea that the other 94% of deaths were caused by other factors entirely.

In most cases, contributing factors listed were either serious complications of the virus such as respiratory failure or pneumonia, or were pre-existing conditions such as obesity or diabetes that can increase the severity of the disease but are not fatal on their own.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he believes that deaths are actually being undercounted, as there have likely been many people who died of the disease without ever being tested, especially early on in the pandemic when tests were not easy to access.

But the theory that the death toll is being inflated has persisted.

Dr. Jeremy Faust, Emergency Physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the Division of Health Policy and Public Health and instructor at Harvard Medical School, said there is an incontrovertible sign that the pandemic is serious and costing many American lives.

"Every year, out of 330 million Americans we expect around 2.7, 2.8, maybe even 2.9 million deaths to occur in this county," he explained. "And it looks like we are going to way, way leapfrog any expectations and be really much closer to 3.1, 3.2 million or more."

While the overall death toll does not tell us why those people died, it demonstrates that there has been a significant increase in mortality in the U.S. in a year where nearly seven million people have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Dr. Faust said the number of deaths per capita has increased to levels not seen since the 1960’s.

"So all the progress we’ve made, it’s almost like we’re living in a world that’s 50 years ago, where we didn’t have so much medical progress."

He said that we may have already seen three million Americans die this year.

"This would be a just astronomical increase, hundreds of thousands of extra deaths," Dr. Faust said. "Zoom out at a population level, and then you can see what’s going on."