U.S. Coronavirus Hospitalizations and Deaths Keep Falling

daily bar chart displaying the percent change by day in the number of people currently hospitalized with COVID-19 in the US. The weekly average of those bars is also shown. This week saw hospitalizations decline, but at a slower pace than prior weeks.

We’ve also seen large numbers of deaths from much earlier periods reported this month, including a backlog of more than 1,500 deaths in Indiana reported on February 4, nearly 4,500 old but previously unreported deaths in Ohio reported from February 11 to 13, plus a smaller addition of deaths in Virginia (total size still unknown), which the state notes is due to processing death certificates from the postholiday (January) surge.

This brings us to a crucial point that news summaries frequently get wrong: The deaths that states and territories report on a given day do not represent people who died on that day. Reported deaths lag behind cases by two to three weeks on average, and many reported deaths actually took place substantially earlier. When reported cases rose during previous surges, deaths lagged weeks behind. The same is true now, as cases decline.

Why this matters: We have every reason to believe that far fewer people actually died of COVID-19 this week than in previous weeks, because cases and hospitalizations continue to drop. But we won’t see those smaller death numbers for weeks to come—probably for more than two or three weeks, as previously overwhelmed public-health officials are able to catch up on processing death certificates.

The backlogs in reported deaths have also affected our numbers for nursing homes and other long-term-care facilities: Indiana added 659 historical resident deaths and one staff death to its cumulative total for the week ending February 17, and Ohio added 1,150 historical resident deaths. We can chart a national trajectory of deaths in long-term-care facilities despite these and other recent large additions by working with the data from the 52 jurisdictions that have not included major backlogs or reassignments in recent months.

The resulting visualization is an incomplete representation of deaths in LTC facilities in absolute numbers, but it allows us to understand the national trend: Weekly deaths in long-term-care facilities continue to decline.

bar chart showing weekly deaths in long-term-care facilities from COVID-19. Deaths this week are down 68.5% from their peak on January 14th. Chart excludes certain states (IN, NY, MO, OH) that have updated their data inconsistently.

If we view deaths in long-term-care facilities in these 52 jurisdictions as a share of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., we see that the percentage of the country’s COVID-19 deaths that are occurring in these facilities also continues to decline.

weekly bar chart showing the COVID-19 deaths occurring in long-term-care facilities as a percentage of all COVID-19 deaths in the US. LTC's share of deaths for the week of Feb 18 is down to 16% after being above 30% for much of the 2020 winter.

The New York Times also recently analyzed trends in nursing-home cases and deaths in relation to national case and death figures.

When our project ceases data compilation on March 7, the only comparable, public federal data set will be the CDC/Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services data set on COVID-19—which is only partially comparable, as it includes only nursing homes and not other long-term-care facilities, such as assisted-living and independent-living facilities. These nursing-home data have been reported weekly by facilities to CMS since May 17 through the CDC’s National Healthcare Safety Network. Cases and deaths are reported as cumulative and weekly totals, and some facilities include cumulative data dating back to January 1, 2020. We’ll be writing more about that in next week’s additions to our series of trainings on federal COVID-19 data.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *