Pa. revises death toll during pandemic months upward by 2,000 fatalities

National Guard soldiers and airmen assist with a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site.

National Guard soldiers and airmen assist with a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site. (Cotton Puryear/U.S. National Guard)

Pennsylvania has released new vital statistics that showed significantly more total deaths recorded in the Keystone State during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic than first thought.

Preliminary reports indicated that about 13,700 had died from any cause during all of April. But revised figures released by the state Department of Health this week now show that the true death toll was closer to 15,237 deaths during that month.

In years past, the state had rarely recorded more than 11,000 deaths during that month.

Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Irvine, said revisions to data hurriedly compiled in response to the COVID-19 crisis were not uncommon.

“Early data on deaths are usually subject to revision. These numbers just take time to collate,” said Noymer. “Now everyone is scrambling to get everything curated in days, not months. It’s not an easy task.”

Although deaths began to decline in May, that month’s fatalities were still well above the norm –– 13,538 deaths, compared to a typical average closer to 11,000. In all, 6,775 more people than average died between April and May 31 of this year, meaning the mortality rate during the pandemic’s apex rose by 30% compared to the same period in 2018 and 2019. Total deaths for the first five months of this year were up by 11%.

Nate Wardle, a spokesperson for the Department of Health, did not immediately comment on the increase.

“We have not done any assessments yet at the aggregate level on the cause of death, to make any determinations as to why numbers may be increased compared to previous years,” he said.

The state, meanwhile, has estimated that about 5,555 people died directly from the coronavirus during that same timeline. But epidemiologists like Noymer say that the total number of deaths can give a more accurate view of the pandemic’s toll than official estimates because fatality rates rarely fluctuate between one year to the next.

This means that cases that were misdiagnosed, deaths indirectly related to coronavirus, and economic deaths caused by conditions during the pandemic can be more easily observed.

Noymer said the upward revisions were a reflection of the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has recently been resurgent in a string of states across the country.

“All these revisions are in the unfortunate direction,” he said. “But, alas, I’m not surprised.”

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