'Excess' deaths raise concerns about pandemic’s death toll in Florida

From January-June 2020, there were 8,600+ deaths than predicted
Posted at 4:48 PM, Jul 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-09 18:34:02-04

FLORIDA — As Florida makes national headlines for turning into the epicenter of COVID-19, data recently analyzed by Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone suggests the pandemic’s most extreme impacts on the Sunshine State may be deadlier than what state leaders have told the public.

“We’re undercounting the COVID-19 related deaths,” said Dr. Thomas Tsai, a surgeon and health policy researcher at Harvard University.

Tsai said the true costs of the pandemic can best be described by something called excess mortality. In the health world, excess mortality is the number of deaths above and beyond what is predicted during any given time period in normal conditions.

For example, in Florida, the average number of deaths during the month of April over the past five years is about 17,000. However, this past April that number spiked to more than 19,000 which means the state logged more than 2,000 excess deaths or deaths above and beyond what was expected under normal conditions for that month. [These numbers will change over time since deaths are constantly being certified and death counts are not necessarily logged the date the person actually died.]

“Across states and at the national level we’re seeing an uptick of deaths in what otherwise would have been predicted during the same time period,” explained Tsai. “It gives us some sense of what the true magnitude of the pandemic is."

In Florida, the state attributed COVID-19 to just over half the increased deaths it reported in April. Dr. Tsai explained why that’s likely an undercount and why some of the rest of those deaths could also be attributed to the pandemic.

“Part of deaths may be due to non-Covid conditions, things like heart attacks or cancer or stroke and those patients who were not able to receive care during the pandemic either because of fear of catching COVID in the hospital setting or hospitals that had to postpone care in order to create capacity to meet the need of COVID-19 cases,” Dr. Tsai said. “You have to understand both to understand the true cost of the pandemic.”

A look at the past six months in Florida shows why health experts are increasingly concerned about death toll numbers here. Between January to June 30, Florida reported 8,671 excess deaths, that’s more than double the 3,650 deaths the state attributed to COVID-19.

Dr. Troy Quast is a health researcher at the University of South Florida. He said the increase in the excess mortality rate during this time is a sign the state may be underplaying the virus and its death toll on Florida.

“It does leave you thinking there might be more investigation needed,” he said.

Dr. Tsai agreed and warns with the state’s surge in cases, Florida’s death rate will go up while its window to control it is quickly closing.

“This is not the time for half measures. This is a time for focused action to truly flatten the curve on the pandemic in Florida. We don’t want to see the pandemic show itself in the fatality numbers, that’s too little too late.” he said.