Are the COVID-19 key statistics provided by counties, states, hospitals, prisons, nursing homes and federal agencies (including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) current and correct? They are not even close to accurate, according to a new study.
The current “official” numbers are those the media uses and what almost everyone who follows these numbers sees, even on government websites. As of Thursday, there were 27,539,217 confirmed cases and 473,223 fatal cases in the United States, according to the Microsoft Bing COVID-19 tracker. The numbers are slightly different on the COVID-19 Map from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, the CDC COVID Data Tracker and the COVID Tracking Project, each of which is among the most carefully followed sources. However, these differences usually happen because of when the data is collected each day. States and counties do not all report COVID-19 cases at the same time.
A new study just published in the journal PLoS One shows that U.S. COVID-19 figures are off by a staggering amount. The analysis shows that the real American number is about 71 million cases, which is almost three times the “official” numbers. The study indicates that 7 million people were infected, some of whom were contagious, last week. Commenting on the study in a statement to Medscape, Jungsik Noh, a bioinformatics professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, said, “The estimates of actual infections reveal for the first time the true severity of COVID-19 across the U.S. and in countries worldwide.” He co-authored the work with Gaudenz Danuser.
The methodology behind the new figures is complex. Calculations were made using machine learning technology. Data for the project was obtained from the Johns Hopkins University database and the COVID Tracking Project. The system’s algorithms work backward from fatal case counts, which are considered more accurate than confirmed case counts. The overall study covers the United States and 50 other nations. Across about half of those nations, confirmed cases were undercounted by sums that were off by five times to 20 times the real numbers.
The study itself is thousands of words long and titled “Estimation of the fraction of COVID-19 infected people in U.S. states and countries worldwide.” Why are the numbers in the analysis so far off from official figures? The authors wrote: “substantial undocumented infections have obscured the true size of the currently infected population, which is arguably the most critical number for public health policy decisions.” They also give extremely specific data about several states and countries.
The study seems to confirm concerns that large numbers of people go undiagnosed, even when they die. Sometimes death certificates identify conditions related to COVID-19 mortality. In other cases, much of the population is asymptomatic and therefore never tested. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has given the number of COVID-19 infected Americans who are asymptomatic at as high as 40%.
The new study concludes with a warning:
Given that the confirmed cases only capture the tip of the iceberg in the middle of the pandemic, the estimated sizes of current infections in this study provide crucial information to determine the regional severity of COVID-19 that can be misguided by the confirmed cases.
Given that cases in the United States continue to rise at close to a million a day, even as rates slow, and that new variants and slow vaccination rates continue to mean the disease is both dangerous and deadly, the warning should be well taken.