Why are so many people Dying?

Posted By Elgin Hushbeck

At my work, I routinely get emails with the latest data on the spread of COVID-19  for the state of Wisconsin.  Most come from the state itself. (COVID-19: Wisconsin Summary Data | Wisconsin Department of Health Services) There is a lot of good data on the disease.  As of March 5,  we have had 556,158 confirmed cases, 552,311 who have recovered, and 6477 who have died. This is a 1.1% death rate.  92% of the deaths were 60 or older. Only 1% were below the ages of 40.  These figures do not include antigen or antibody tests, nor do they account for the unknown number of people who had COVID but never had any symptoms or whose symptoms were so mild they did not realize they had it.

Looking over the recent report, overall, the things looks encouraging. Active cases have dropped drastically from a high of 75,922 on November 21 to 7,211 in the latest report.  Hospitalizations and ICU patients have also declined.  New cases per day have also dropped from a high of 7,989 in on November 18 to 350 on March 5.  Meanwhile,  vaccinations are rolling out with increasing speed, with 59.8% of those 65 and older having already received at least one dose. What was puzzling was the number of death per week.

Not surprisingly, the number of deaths per week peaked along with the number of active cases in November at 381.  While the number of active cases has been cut by a factor of 10, the number of deaths was only reduced by less than a factor of 5 to 78.  I wondered if this was some lagging indicator, so I compared this with earlier data.  Around four weeks ago, we dropped below 10,000 cases per day, which was the peak for the cases in the summer. During the summer, Hospitalization and ICU patients were a little higher, but that is expected. Over the intervening months, doctors have become better at treating COVID. 

What was really puzzling is that during the summer, deaths per week peaked at 56.  With fewer active cases, we now have 40% more deaths, even if you account for the lag. That is the best case.  I wondered if this were due to the currently active cases being among the older, most vulnerable age groups, but that does not appear to be the case. 83% of the new cases are those younger than 60%. Out of the 26,387 people who have even been hospitalized for COVID in Wisconsin,  65% were over 60. Yet, currently, they represent only 48% of those in the hospital.

Thus the puzzle?  Why is it that we have fewer active cases, lower hospital and ICU stays, better treatments, and yet 40% more deaths, probably more?  Someone with better access to the data will have to answer that.

Mar 6th, 2021

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