A Harvard expert has weighed in on the mystery of why the daily death toll isn’t increasing sharply even as coronavirus cases are skyrocketing in much of the United States.
The answer, said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Policy Institute, is that if you look at the data more closely, coronavirus deaths are on the rise in the hot spots.
But at a national level, he said, that rise is being offset by declines in deaths in states that are successfully staving off the pandemic.
Jha said in a series of tweets Tuesday that a “closer look” at the data “tells a concerning story.”
He said deaths in the hard-hit states are “starting to rise. Exactly as we worried about.”
Jha said he looked at data for states with the largest outbreaks and found that in nine out 10 of those states (including Arizona, Florida, Texas and California) deaths were rising.
He said national mortality numbers were skewed because deaths were falling in states like New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.
“So rise in some places, fall in others makes nation looks flat,” he said.
“The good news is overall as a nation our death rates have continued to fall, and now they’ve stabilized,” he said Wednesday on ABC-TV’s Good Morning America. “But what we’re missing in all of this … is we have really a tale of two countries.”
“I’m really worried about what’s happening in the hot spot states,” he said.
Jha and other experts have been warning that deaths are a “lagging indicator” since they may follow weeks behind a case is confirmed.
An increase in deaths will inevitably follow an increase in cases, but it will take several weeks to a month, according to Paula Cannon, a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.
“We are in the calm before the storm,” Cannon told Bloomberg News. “Deaths follow cases with a delay of two to four weeks.”
“Why aren’t today’s deaths trending in the same way today’s cases are trending? That’s completely not the way to think about it,” Eleanor Murray, an epidemiologist at Boston University, told Vox. “Today’s cases represent infections that probably happened a week or two ago. Today’s deaths represent cases that were diagnosed possibly up to a month ago, so infections that were up to six weeks ago or more.”
Other theories have also been advanced for why the deaths have not followed cases sharply upward, including more and better treatments, and the fact that the new wave of cases has been detected in younger people, who are less likely to die from the virus.
Jha noted on Good Morning America that even if young people are less severely affected, they can keep the disease itself in circulation, “active and alive,” and he warned of “larger and larger outbreaks” in the fall.
“This is why it’s really important to get on top of this now,” he said.