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Writing about COVID as a respite from election madness is very cold comfort, but here goes….

COVID deaths in the U.S. still haven’t shown the kind of upward trend this fall that many had feared. It could happen, but it hasn’t yet. In the chart above, new cases are shown in brown (along with the rolling seven-day average), while deaths (on the right axis) are shown in blue. It’s been over six weeks since new case counts began to rise, but deaths have risen for about two weeks, and it’s been gradual relative to the first two waves. Either the average lag between diagnosis and death is much longer than earlier in the year, or the current “casedemic” is much less deadly, or perhaps both. It could change. And granted, this is national data; states in the midwest have had the strongest trends in cases, especially the upper midwest, as well as stronger trends in hospitalizations and deaths. Most of those areas had milder experiences with the virus in the spring and summer.

Lagged Reporting

What’s tricky about this is that both case reports and death reports in the chart above are significantly lagged. A COVID test might not take place until several days after infection (if at all), and sometimes not until hospitalization or death. Then the test result might not be known for several days. However, the greater availability of tests and faster turnaround time have almost certainly shortened that lag.

Deaths are reported with an even a greater delay, though you wouldn’t know it from listening to the media or some of the organizations that track these statistics, such as Johns Hopkins University and the COVID Tracking Project. Thus far, they only tell you what’s reported on a given day. This article from Rational Ground does a good job of explaining the issue and the distortion it causes in discerning trends.

Deaths by actual date-of-death

I’ve reported on the issue of lagged COVID deaths myself. The following graph from Justin Hart is a clear presentation of the reporting delays.

Reported deaths for the most recent week (10/24) are shown in dark blue, and those deaths were spread over a number of prior weeks. Actual deaths in a given week are represented by a “stack” of deaths reported later, in subsequent weeks. One word of caution: actual deaths in the most recent weeks are “provisional”, and more will be added in subsequent reporting weeks. Hence the steep drop off for the 10/17 and 10/24 reporting weeks.

Going back three or four weeks, it’s clear that actual deaths continued to decline into October. Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell us much about the recent trend or whether actual deaths have started to rise given the increase in new cases. I have seen a new weekly update with the deaths by actual date of death, but it is not “stacked” by reporting week. However, it does show a slight increase in the week of 10/10, the first weekly increase since the end of June. So perhaps we’ll see an uptick more in-line with the earlier lags between diagnosis and death, but that’s far from certain.

Another important point is that the number of deaths each week, and each day, are not as high as reported by the media and the popular tracking sites. How often have you heard “more than 1,000 people a day are dying”. That’s high even for weekly averages of reported deaths. As of three weeks ago, actual daily deaths were running at about 560. That’s still very high, but based on seroprevalence estimates (the actual number of infections from the presence of antibodies), the infection fatality keeps dropping toward levels that are comparable to the flu at ages less than 65.

Where is the flu?

Speaking of the flu, this chart from the World Health Organization is revealing: the flu appears to have virtually disappeared in 2020:

It’s still very early in the northern flu season, but the case count was very light this summer in the Southern Hemisphere. There are several possible explanations. One favored by the “lockdown crowd” is that mitigation efforts, including masks and social distancing, have curtailed the flu bug. Not just curtailed … quashed! If that’s true, it’s more than a little odd because the same measures have been so unsuccessful in curtailing COVID, which is transmitted the same way! Also, these measures vary widely around the globe, which weakens the explanation.

There are other, more likely explanations: perhaps the flu is being undercounted because COVID is being overcounted. False positive COVID tests might override the reporting of a few flu cases, but not all diagnoses are made via testing. Other respiratory diseases can be mistaken for the flu and vice versus, and they are now more likely to be diagnosed as COVID absent a test — and as the joke goes, the flu is now illegal! And another partial explanation: it is rare to be infected with two viruses at once. Thus, COVID is said to be “crowding out” the flu.

Waiting for data

There is other good news about transmission, treatment, and immunity, but I’ll devote another post to that, and I’ll wait for more data. For now, the “third wave” appears to be geographically distinct from the first two, as was the second wave from the first. This suggests a sort of herd immunity in areas that were hit more severely in earlier waves. But the best news is that COVID deaths, thus far this fall, are not showing much if any upward movement, and estimates of infection fatality rates continue to fall.