Responding to a question from U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders during a remote congressional testimony on Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci noted that the actual death count from the novel coronavirus in the United States is “likely higher” than official tallies.
“Given the situation, particularly in New York City — when they were really strapped with a very serious challenge to their health care system — that there may have been people who died at home who did have some COVID who are not counted as COVID because they never really got to the hospital,” Fauci said.
New York City’s death toll from the coronavirus may be thousands of fatalities worse than the tally kept by the city and state, according to an analysis released Monday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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Between March 11 and May 2, about 24,000 more people died in the city than researchers would ordinarily expect during that time period, the report said.
That’s about 5,300 more deaths than were blamed on the coronavirus in official tallies during those weeks.
Some of those excess fatalities could be COVID-19 deaths that went uncounted because a person died at home, or without medical providers realizing they were infected, the researchers at New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said.
It might also represent a ripple effect of the health crisis, they wrote. Public fear over contracting the virus and the enormous strain on hospitals might have led to delays in people seeking or receiving lifesaving care for unrelated conditions like heart disease or diabetes.
“Tracking excess mortality is important to understanding the contribution to the death rate from both COVID-19 disease and the lack of availability of care for non-COVID conditions," the report said.
The report underscored the challenges authorities face in quantifying the human toll of the crisis. Deaths caused by the coronavirus are believed to be undercounted worldwide, due in large part to limits in testing and the different ways countries count the dead.
Through Sunday, New York City had recorded nearly 14,800 deaths confirmed by a lab test and another nearly 5,200 probable deaths where no test was available but doctors are sure enough to list the virus on the death certificate.
In its analysis, the report released Monday said the 5,293 excess deaths were on top of both confirmed and probable fatalities.
Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, has not shied away from expressing what could be interpreted as grim outlooks or potential negative outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic, with his remark echoing concerns from others over potential under reporting or misreporting of COVID-19 death counts.
In general, for a person to be determined to have died from COVID-19, they must have tested positive for COVID-19. New York City, for example, provides a list of confirmed COVID-19 deaths (14,928 as of May 12) and probable deaths (5,128).
And since response efforts to the pandemic have mostly been left up to individual cities and states, there leaves the room for potential discrepancies in official death counts.
In another example, there have been concerns that China, once the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, is under-reporting or misreporting its official confirmed cases and death tallies.
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In the U.S., due to lack of testing availability throughout the pandemic, as well as the high possibility of asymptomatic carriers spreading the virus, it has remained difficult to determine who actually has been infected with COVID-19.
As of May 12, Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center had reported that more than 81,000 people in the U.S. have died from the novel coronavirus and that there have been 288,000 deaths worldwide.
Fauci reiterated in Tuesday’s testimony the likelihood of another deadly wave of coronavirus arriving in the fall, warning that opening the country too soon “could turn the clock back,” and that not only would cause “some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to try to get economic recovery.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.