By official counts, COVID-19 confirmed cases in the U.S. have just crossed 20 million. Deaths set a single-day record two days ago at 3,725. A small portion of those death were figures reported late by at least one state, so the actual number was not quite as large. The delay of that data will get worse over the next few days, which means the counts reported by the government and media will be off, perhaps by a great deal.
Christmas weekend counts were too low because many counties did not report last Friday. They may have caught up later in the week. Yesterday, a Friday, would typically be a day of normal reporting. However, many government agencies that handle COVID-19 figures were shuttered for the holiday.
December holiday weekends are not the only ones when accurate reporting has been a problem. The Atlantic reported in mid-November that Thanksgiving would be an issue “As the project’s managing editor, Erin Kissane, wrote this week, the number of new COVID-19 cases reported on a Sunday or Monday—data that are actually collected on Saturday and Sunday—is typically several percentage points below the weekly average.”
Through the first week of January, these numbers should “catch up”. That means that reports of confirmed cases and deaths will be higher than actual on some of these upcoming dates.
The delay in COVID-19 counts is not new. On April 21, New York State reported 10,000 deaths. The figure was not officially accurate. It was adjusted for 3,700 deaths that were not reported earlier in the month.
The inaccuracy of the data around the holidays undermines many press headlines. Did a state actually report a daily record? Have death rates begun to fall in some states? The real answer to those questions may have to wait until the middle of this upcoming week.
The other reason the figures are off, not just occasionally, but regularly since the start of the outbreak are underreported deaths from COVID-19. Death certificates my list related causes as the primary ones. This could be a heart attack or pneumonia. Several experts believe the figures will never be accurate because it will be impossible to go back and find the correct causes for all the people who have died from COVID-19 since the start of the year.
The delay in COVID-19 data may even affect hospitalization counts. While hospitals are obviously always open, the system that collects their data and reports it may not be. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) collects hospital data. However, according to the journal Science, one CDC source who had read the agency’s analysis said, “The HHS Protect data are poor quality, inconsistent with state reports, and the analysis is slipshod.” Some state data has been different from the HHS figures.
Presumably, the holiday delays will have caught up within several days, and as the collection of information moves forward it will become more accurate again. That will never resolve the issue of how many people who died of COVID-19 went uncounted.
For the next several days, at least, COVID-19 confirmed cases and death totals from many sources will be wrong.