by Jon Sanders
Director of the Center for Food, Power, and Life, Research Editor | John Locke Foundation
The last week for which the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has reported deaths data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is May 16.
We are the absolute last in the nation in reporting these data. It’s not even close. North Carolina is a month and a half behind most other states and territories. Our closest competitor in lax reporting is West Virginia, which is still three weeks ahead of us.
These data are very important, especially during a pandemic, so it’s baffling why DHHS is withholding them.
The CDC has an interesting tool for helping pinpoint an unusual outbreak of deaths in a part of the country, regardless of the reason, at a particular moment in time. It’s called “Excess Deaths.” It tracks a state’s average amount of deaths at that moment in time, estimated over a number a years, and predicts what the “expected deaths” will be for that time period in the future.
Actual deaths will differ, of course, from expected deaths. As long as the actual deaths are below a 95 percent confidence interval for expected deaths, the CDC reckons there are no unusual causes of deaths in that time period (e.g., a flu). If actual deaths exceed that threshold, however, those “excess deaths” alert the CDC that there is an unusual cause of death in that jurisdiction.
A pandemic like COVID-19 or a particularly bad outbreak of influenza could push a state into “excess deaths” territory. What makes this method so useful is that it doesn’t worry about judgment calls over the actual causes of deaths. It compares total deaths in a state during a period of time with the past history of deaths in that state at that same time of the year. It isn’t affected by uncertainties over classification of deaths from a pandemic like COVID-19 or the flu. (For more discussion, see Dr. Donald R. van der Vaart’s discussion of the potential mixup in determining cause of death from COVID-19, flu, or pneumonia.)
Given such reporting uncertainty, which is greater when there’s a pandemic in the mix, it’s very useful in general to know whether a society is witnessing more deaths than normal. All the more so when the fear of hospital overruns and widespread death are the basis for severe, government-imposed economic and personal restrictions.
Back on May 16, North Carolina was one of only nine states whose high estimate for percent of excess deaths was zero. The others were Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Idaho, Maine, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.
North Carolina exceeded the excess death threshold only once: the week ending April 25:
Subsequent weeks of deaths reported to the CDC seem to show that the state had avoided the deadliest phase of the virus. COVID deaths in North Carolina were declining even before May 16. This included a steep drop beginning in June:
It’s reasonable to infer that North Carolina hasn’t witnessed excess deaths in the weeks following May 16. The state already was below the excess deaths threshold then, and COVID deaths were already declining — a decline that accelerated in subsequent weeks.
What if, by reporting deaths like other states have been doing, DHHS would also be showing that North Carolina isn’t experiencing excess deaths due to COVID? Would such data disclosure undermine justifications for the Cooper administration’s harsh and protracted business shutdowns, half-shutdowns, and severe economic and personal restrictions?