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Researchers used six key drivers to come up with their estimate of COVID-19 deaths in the United States. People Images/Getty Images
  • Researchers say it’s likely that 900,000 people in the United States have died so far from COVID-19.
  • Some experts disagree with the findings, while others say they’re probably accurate.
  • Experts agree that studying the number of deaths can help determine what steps are most effective when another pandemic strikes.

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It’s estimated that the number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States has now surpassed 588,000.

However, the real number could be closer to 1 million, according to a report released this month from the Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).

Another study published today reported that deaths related to COVID-19 in the United States could be underestimated by 20 percent. Their analysis would put the death toll closer to 720,000.

IHME researchers say they wanted to create a more realistic picture of COVID-19 deaths by looking at six key drivers of excess deaths that appear to be related to or affected by the pandemic.

Those drivers are:

  • total deaths
  • increase in deaths due to medical care getting delayed or deferred
  • increase in deaths due to mental health disorders
  • decrease in deaths due to physical distancing and other measures
  • decrease in lower rates of other diseases
  • decrease in deaths due to chronic conditions that would have resulted in death if not for COVID-19

Testing capacity was also noted as an issue.

“Deaths that are directly due to COVID-19 are likely underreported in many locations, particularly in settings where COVID-19 testing is in short supply,” the study authors wrote. “Most excess mortality is likely misclassified COVID-19 deaths.”

Parsing these details to the best of their ability was key to developing the IHME’s attempt at a more holistic sense of deaths due to COVID-19.

But not every expert agrees with the analysis.

The IHME findings are “highly speculative,” said Dr. Soumi Eachempati, the CEO of Cleared4Work, a COVID-19 safety protocol implementation company, and a former professor of surgery and public health at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.

“The fundamental flaw is that they are using selectively available data in certain areas to make assumptions about mortality in potentially unrelated areas,” he told Healthline. “They are extrapolating conclusions from one locale and assuming that they will contribute equally to other locales.”

Other potential drawbacks include not accounting for future deaths from people who couldn’t get more immediate access to medical care as well as missed deaths in the future due to poor cancer detection from missed screenings, Eachempati noted.

However, Dr. Jagdish Khubchandani, a professor of public health at New Mexico State University who has worked with the IHME in the past, disagreed. He said the value of the overall picture outweighs any of the imperfections of the model.

“The methods are very strong, intelligent, and comprehensive given all the limitations of existing data and chaos around reporting by countries and regions,” Khubchandani told Healthline. “Like any other epidemiological model and estimation, this analysis also has some uncertainty and error, but these estimates certainly add more to our understanding of what we may have missed.”

Taking a more comprehensive approach to COVID-19 deaths outside of the directly reported deaths can also enlarge our understanding of what strategies societies might want to take on the road to recovery, he said.

“Beyond the numbers, we must also as societies question what kind of economic, political, and social actions do we need to recover and prevent further damage,” Khubchandani added.

On that point, Eachempati agreed.

“It is important from a public health standpoint to understand all the ways that the pandemic influenced morbidity and mortality,” he said. “This knowledge will help allocate resources to future pandemics more properly.”