(Natural News) The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has claimed the lives of over 60,000 Americans, but scientists and healthcare experts fear that the numbers will be far higher once officials make a true reckoning of the dead. These experts are now are urging leaders to take measures to preserve data and medical specimens so that science has the chance to determine the exact number of fatalities from the outbreak.
“Under-counting deaths in this particular epidemic is happening all over,” stated epidemiologist and former top World Health Organization (WHO) official Dr. Daniel Lopez-Acuna to ABC News. “It’s almost inevitable.”
Getting the exact number of COVID-19 deaths is quite complicated for a number of reasons. However, doctors and scientists, as well as federal and global health officials, say that more testing is the single most important factor in getting an accurate national death count.
Lack of testing is preventing an accurate death count
Cities and states nationwide are experiencing ongoing testing shortages. As a result, only clearly symptomatic patients are being tested in many places. Additionally, until two weeks ago, the U.S. did not have a uniform national system for investigating deaths — only Americans who had tested positive for COVID-19 before or after death were included in the death count.
Not included in the death count were people who died without being tested, as well as those who died at home or at a non-healthcare facility before they could seek medical care.
“It is an extraordinary challenge,” explained Dr. Sally Aiken, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners. “There just isn’t really the infrastructure.”
In addition to this, new data suggest that the coronavirus had been spreading in the U.S. much earlier than previously believed. If these data are correct, then the virus played a role in more deaths than currently known. (Related: More people have died from coronavirus than the official numbers suggest, NYT claims.)
The earliest known COVID-19 victim to date in California is Patricia Cabello Dowd from in Santa Clara County. Dowd’s passing — caused by a heart rupture “due to COVID-19 infection,” according to autopsy reports — came three weeks before the earliest previously identified coronavirus-related death in America.
Meanwhile, new data on cardiac arrest emergency calls in New York City, reviewed by ABC News, suggest that the city’s outbreak likely began as far back as mid-February, in close-knit neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn.
According to experts, people like Dowd, who died of non-respiratory COVID-19 complications early in the outbreak, may never be accurately counted.
While most news organizations rely on the running tally by the Johns Hopkins University — which pulls directly from state and local government websites — the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) is the primary agency responsible for U.S. health statistics. However, due to the lack of a uniform U.S. system, the NCHS lags about two weeks behind in reporting, according to Dr. Robert Anderson, chief of mortality statistics.
NCHS data was analyzed by Daniel Weinberger, an epidemiologist with the Yale School of Public health, to estimate how many COVID-19 deaths may have gone uncounted during the five-week period between March 1 to April 3. Weinberger concluded that the current U.S. death toll, which recently surpassed 60,000, is “probably a substantial underestimate of the true number by tens of thousands.”
History shows that outbreak deaths have been underreported in the past
Previous studies of other virus outbreaks also lend credence to the suggestion that the actual number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. is much higher than what has been reported.
A 2012 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control on the 2009–2010 H1N1 swine flu virus outbreak in the U.S. concluded that the actual death tally was likely 15 times higher than official figures. Meanwhile, a similar 2013 study by the National Institutes of Health determined that the figure was seven times higher than what was officially recorded.
However, scientists have said that the magnitude of the current coronavirus pandemic is much greater.
“I’ve never – none of us have ever – seen an infection like COVID-19, that literally stopped the world,” said Dr. Alex Williamson of the College of American Pathologists.