Daily COVID-19 Briefing: Thursday


Top news, reports and insights for today:

  1. Daily deadline summaries for Thursday:
  • U.S. daily coronavirus case count crosses 50,000 setting a single day record as some states reverse course on reopening and hospitals were hit by a surge of patients (Wall Street Journal)
  • Experts suggest a plastic face shield, if properly fitted and warn, has advantages over cloth masks for use by the public and should be used more widely (JAMA)
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics issues guidance in favor of reopening schools in the fall. Guidance stresses that children do not appear to be driving the epidemic, are less likely to be infected than other respiratory illnesses and that in-person education is better than online teaching (American Academy of Pediatrics)
  • Italian researchers studied nearly all residents of one town before and after lock-down. Main results were that 40% of those infected never developed symptoms. None of the children in the study became infected. Those with and without symptoms did not differ on viral load. Half of those infected had cleared the virus 2 weeks later. The lockdown was very effective at halting transmission (Ars Technica)
  1. U.S. enters new dangerous phase, smashing previous daily high record new cases, decline in deaths stops
     I have said for months that a return of widespread community transmission with Rt>1 was inevitable by July 1 given that states reopened recklessly. However, the ferocity of the resurgence in cases has caught me and many experts off guard. I apologize for showing you 4 different graphs for today’s briefing, but the story they tell is chilling. The first graph is our usual epidemic curve of new reported lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases by day. A record high 52,554 new cases were reported yesterday, the first day with more than 45,000 cases and 16,000 more than the peak set in late April. For the first time since the epidemic, the U.S. reported more than 300,000 new cases in one week. In just 7 days, the U.S. reported more infections than were accumulated from the start of the epidemic until April 4. The U.S. now has more than 2.6 million reported cases, 26% of all cases on the planet and twice as many as Brazil, still ranked second.
    Deaths flatten: The second graph shows daily deaths. This remains a mystery. The 7-day moving average has been falling since Memorial day. In the last few days, that decline looks to have stopped. Yesterday, Arizona, a state on the front edge of the case surge, reported a spike in deaths with 88, a rise of 100% from the previous day. Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Kentucky, Texas, Virginia, and Rhode Island, all have seen deaths rise by 20% or more in the last week. I believe we will see deaths rising sharply in the states where cases first started surging.
    Cases increased last week in all but 3 U.S. states: The next graph shows the weekly growth factors by state. Nationally, the U.S. had it’s first week with 300,000 new cases. Astonishingly, the growth factors for last week compared to the week before are >1 in all U.S. states except Rhode Island, New Jersey and the nation’s capital. Weekly cases rose by 50% or more in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Kansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee.
    13 States reported more than 15 new daily cases per 100,000 population last week. The last graph shows the rate of new daily cases last week. Arizona continues to be the most extreme, now reporting more than 47 new cases per 100,000 every day. That is the highest rate we have seen anywhere at any point. In the South, 9 of 13 states are above this mark, which is 3-times higher than the 5 cases per day per 100,000 benchmark for low transmission. Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas are all over 20. Only 1 Northeastern state is over 5.
    The bottom line: The U.S. epidemic is out of control with no end in sight.
  1. U.S. capturing about 2/3 of the true number of COVID-19 deaths
    We already know that deaths from COVID-19 are undercounted for a variety of reasons. We also know that an accurate tally of the death toll is very important. As I have emphasized here before, our best tool for understanding the true mortality picture is to examine deaths from all causes using the best available data and comparing the numbers from 2020 to previous yearly averages. This allows us to capture excess deaths above what is expected in a “normal” month taking seasonal variation into account. It’s not perfect, but it is closer to the truth than our current count. Previous studies using similar methods have found that the ascertainment rate (% of true COVID-19 deaths that are counted) is about 50%. Over time, we hope that will improve. Yesterday, a new study was published by my former colleague and friend demographer Steven Woolf and in JAMA that adds important new information. They used a state-of-the art model to estimate total excess deaths that are probably COVID-19 related. This includes cases where COVID-19 is mentioned on the death certificate, but also more indirect causes. They specifically examine rises in deaths above temporal trends in past years that may reflect those who died because they didn’t seek care for existing problems, had exacerbations of chronic diseases, or may have succumbed to secondary distress (e.g., drug overdoses). Their main finding is that in the 8-week period from March 1 through April 25, about 65% of the excess deaths likely related to COVID-19 were actually counted as such. That means, the remaining 35% of deaths were not counted. The 5 states with the most COVID-19 deaths experienced large proportional increases in deaths from non-respiratory underlying causes including diabetes (96% increase), heart disease (89%), Alzheimer disease (64%) and cerebrovascular disease (35%). New York City, which reported the highest number of COVID-19 deaths, saw a 398% rise in the number of heart disease deaths. The graph below, taken from the paper, shows that in the 5 hardest hit states, a significant jump in deaths can be seen in March and April of this year for heart disease, diabetes. Smaller but still substantial increases happened for stroke and Alzheimer disease as well. Diabetes deaths rose from 40% to more than doubling depending on the state.
    The bottom line: The true number of COVID-19 deaths is probably about 1/3 higher than our current numbers suggest. If true, the U.S. now has an estimated 177,000 deaths rather than the official count of 131,000. Significant numbers of people are dying of non-respiratory manifestations of SARS-CoV-2 and are not being counted. States vary widely in the accuracy of their counts.
From Woolf et al, JAMA Published online July 1, 2020. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.11787
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