There is speculation among President Trump and top White House officials that the number of deaths related to COVID-19 aren’t real. The information that has been supplied by state health departments and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) include individuals who died from other conditions while infected with the virus. This has led some political officials to feel that there are too many “alleged” deaths related to COVID-19. One official has gone so far as to accuse hospitals of possibly overstating their coronavirus patient counts in an effort to get more money from Medicare.
Many medical experts point out that if a healthy person contracts COVID-19 and dies, then their death gets attributed to the virus. If a person with a preexisting condition contracts the disease and dies, they still died from the infection, not their preexisting condition, even though it might have made them more susceptible to the virus. If either type of person contracts the virus and develops complications that ultimately lead to their death, they died from the virus because they wouldn’t have had the complications if they weren’t infected with the virus in the first place.
This is why public health experts and statisticians say that political officials are wrong. In fact, they say that the death toll is probably far higher than what is actually documented. This is the result of two factors. The first is that deaths from COVID-19 in the early part of the year were not labeled as such since the extent of the virus’ impact wasn’t known. Instead, these probably were attributed to the flu or pneumonia. The second item is that people are dying at home or in nursing homes and are never tested. So, these individuals could potentially have had the disease and we have no way of knowing it. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), said regarding the death toll numbers in a Senate health committee hearing this month, “I don’t know exactly what percent higher but almost certainly it is higher.”
Epidemiologists are also changing the way they tabulate their numbers. Instead of just looking at the number of confirmed deaths from the virus, they’re increasingly comparing recent totals of deaths from all causes in current weeks compared to those from the same time period but from points prior to the pandemic. This helps to provide a more complete picture of the pandemic’s impact than just tracking the deaths of people with confirmed diagnoses. The fatalities that fall into the gap between the observed and normal numbers of deaths are called “excess deaths.” For example, one study of New York City’s mortality statistics demonstrated that more than 24,000 excess deaths occurred from March 11th to May 2nd.
While we’re still grappling with the exact impact that the virus has had on the country, scientists are hard at work trying to come up with a solution for a vaccine. A prototype of a new vaccine was shown to protect monkeys from COVID-19 in a report released this week by virologists at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. The report also provides insight into what a vaccine will need to do in order to be effective and how that should be measured.
In the experiment, researchers tested six prototype vaccines on monkeys (rhesus macaques). They gave each vaccine type to four or five monkeys. Then, they let them develop an immune response for three weeks before spraying the virus in their noses. Some of the vaccines gave only partial protection. The virus wasn’t entirely eliminated, but the levels were lower than in unvaccinated monkeys. Other vaccines worked better and the one that worked best taught the immune system to recognize and attack the spike protein of COVID-19. In eight monkeys, the virus couldn’t be detected at all. This shows very promisingly that a vaccine could be effective against the virus but much more testing is still needed to confirm it.