Death by numbers

Spectator USA has taken down the paywall on UK Dr. John Lee’s exposition of “How to understand — and report — figures for ‘COVID deaths.’” Dr. Lee makes makes this salient observation that is otherwise obscured in the discussion of death rates attributed to the virus:

You might think it would be easy to calculate death rates. Death is a stark and easy-to-measure end point. In my working life (I’m a retired pathology professor) I usually come across studies that express it comparably and as a ratio: the number of deaths in a given period of time in an area, divided by that area’s population. For example, 10 deaths per 1,000 population per year. So just three numbers:

1. The population who have contracted the disease
2. The number dying of disease
3. The relevant time period

The trouble is that in the COVID-19 crisis each one of these numbers is unclear.

On point 2:

Unfortunately nuance tends to be lost in the numbers quoted from the database being used to track COVID-19: the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. It has compiled a huge database, with COVID-19 data from all over the world, updated daily — and its figures are used, world over, to track the virus. This data is not standardized and so probably not comparable, yet this important caveat is seldom expressed by the (many) graphs we see. It risks exaggerating the quality of data that we have.

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It should be noted that there is no international standard method for attributing or recording causes of death. Also, normally, most respiratory deaths never have a specific infective cause recorded, whereas at the moment we can expect all positive COVID-19 results associated with a death to be recorded. Again, this is not splitting hairs. Imagine a population where more and more of us have already had COVID-19, and where every ill and dying patient is tested for the virus. The deaths apparently due to COVID-19, the COVID trajectory, will approach the overall death rate. It would appear that all deaths were caused by COVID-19 — would this be true? No. The severity of the epidemic would be indicated by how many extra deaths (above normal) there were overall.