A widely shared post on Twitter, which has also been shared on Facebook, uses data on the number of Covid-19 deaths in England, Italy and Spain to claim that the “end of the pandemic is NOT in sight.”
In relation to England specifically, the post says: “COVID deaths during July and August per year: England:
- 2022: 10,847
- 2021: 4,782
- 2020: 1,734”
It is true that people are still dying of Covid, and the end of the pandemic is a difficult moment to define precisely.
However, this post uses a flawed measure of Covid deaths in 2022 and gives the misleading impression that the disease is currently causing more deaths than it did in the first two years.
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What is wrong with the post?
The figures in the post accurately count deaths within 60 days of a positive Covid test for England, and use figures for Italy and Spain from Our World in Data, in July and August.
This article will only consider the English data, which gives a misleading view of the progress of the pandemic for two reasons.
Firstly, the data only looks at deaths in July and August, which saw relatively few deaths in 2020 and 2021.
The number of deaths within 60 days of a positive test for the whole of the first eight months of each year was 40,934 in 2020, 62,454 in 2021 and 50,590 in 2022.
A bigger issue with this measure is that it exaggerates the number of deaths that Covid is currently causing because it counts all deaths within 60 days of a positive test—whether or not the death was actually caused by Covid.
In the past, the 60-day measure was a reasonably accurate proxy for the number of people dying of Covid. But following the vaccination programme and the arrival of the milder Omicron variant, the disease has become much less likely to be fatal, meaning that many more people may catch it but die soon afterwards for other reasons.
As a result, the 60-day measure now substantially overstates the number of people dying directly from Covid.
A better measure counts the number of death certificates that mention the disease—in particular those that mention it as the “underlying cause” of death. (We could also count the number of death certificates that mention Covid, but these would include some deaths with a different underlying cause.)
Counting deaths with Covid registered as their underlying cause shows:
- 1,075 people in England died of Covid in July and August 2020, and 46,177 in the first eight months of that year
- 3,735 people in England died of Covid in July and August 2021, and 49,446 in the first eight months of that year
- 2,904 people in England died of Covid in July and August 2022, and 15,417 in the first eight months of the year
In short, July and August were a slightly below average two-month period for Covid deaths in 2022 but were far below average in 2020 and 2021. And 2022 as a whole has seen far fewer deaths from Covid than either of those years.
The author of the post on Twitter says that he uses the 60-days measure of deaths because it more closely tracks the number of excess deaths occurring (that is the total number of deaths in excess of what might be expected based on the number of deaths in recent years).
But even if this is true, it does not mean it is an accurate measure of Covid deaths specifically, because the number of excess deaths may rise and fall for other reasons.
The number of deaths following a positive test is also limited by the availability of testing, which may have artificially reduced the totals early in the pandemic. Less testing might also affect the totals now, although deaths within 60 days of a positive test are currently much higher than those due to Covid.
Image courtesy of SJ Objio