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State modeling shows up to 4,300 Mass. residents could die from coronavirus. How does that compare to other causes of death?

As of Friday, 1,404 people had died in Massachusetts from COVID-19.
As of Friday, 1,404 people had died in Massachusetts from COVID-19.Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff

Recent state modeling shows the coronavirus pandemic could claim 4,300 Massachusetts lives, a grim projection that explains the restrictive measures put in place to stop the spread of the virus. But how does that compare to other causes of death on an annual basis?

First, some caveats: What is known is that as of Friday, 1,404 people had died in Massachusetts from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. The first coronavirus-related death in the state was reported about a month ago.

Beyond that, it’s all up to models that predict the future. And the models don’t agree.

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While state modeling projects a possible 4,300 deaths, an influential University of Washington group forecasting the spread of coronavirus worldwide recently boosted its forecast for COVID-19 deaths in Massachusetts to a staggering 8,219, a more-than-fourfold increase from earlier projections. State officials have disputed the projections of the group at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, as has Samuel Scarpino, a professor in the Network Science Institute at Northeastern University.

Scarpino on Wednesday called the UW researchers’ model flawed. Speaking to the Globe when deaths had just passed 1,100 statewide, he said, "Realistically are we going to see eight times as many deaths, given where we are in the curve? No.”

Assuming that the state’s less severe projections are right, here are some comparisons based on state Department of Public Health death numbers from 2017, the most recent year available on the agency’s website.

Based on those numbers, a COVID-19 death toll of 4,300 residents would make the disease the third leading cause of death in the state, behind cancer (12,937) and heart disease (12,165). The virus would finish just ahead of unintentional injuries, which claimed 3,913 Massachusetts lives in 2017.

According to preliminary data provided Friday by DPH, cancer looked again to be the leading cause of death in the state in 2018 at 12,414, followed by heart disease at 10,817 and unintentional injuries at 3,993. Last year, there were 12,325 cancer deaths, followed by 10,504 heart disease fatalities and 4,041 deaths from accidental injuries, the data shows.

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The DPH cautioned, however, that because some of the more recent data provided Friday is preliminary, it should be used with caution.

Behind unintentional injuries was chronic lower respiratory disease, which killed 2,843 state residents in 2017, followed by stroke, which claimed 2,370 lives.

There were 161 deaths each day on average in Massachusetts in 2017, with cancer topping the list at 35, followed by heart disease at 33, and respiratory deaths at 16, according to DPH. By comparison, the health department this week reported daily COVID-19 death tolls statewide of 70 on Sunday, 88 on Monday, 113 on Tuesday, 151 on Wednesday, 137 on Thursday, and 159 on Friday.

The DPH cautions that there’s a “day-to-day variability in cases reported by testing laboratories and no single day change is indicative of overall case trends.”

Nationwide more than 30,000 people have died from the virus, The New York Times reported Thursday. More than 1,000 deaths are routinely announced across the country each day, with some days exceeding 2,000, the Times reported.

For 2017, the most recent year available, the CDC said the leading cause of death nationwide was heart disease at 647,457, followed by cancer at 599,108, unintentional injuries at 169,936, and chronic lower respiratory diseases at 160,201.

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Mark Arsenault of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.