Oregon's deaths related to COVID-19 are significantly undercounted—by a factor of as much as four.
That's the conclusion of Ken Stokes, a retired local economist who compared the historical average number of deaths in Oregon to deaths recorded so far in 2020.
Stokes read a story in the Financial Times that found deaths around the world were significantly higher than normal, adjusted for officially reported COVID-19-caused deaths. He then took the five-year average of reported deaths from the Oregon Health Authority database and compared it to this year's deaths.
Stokes found the number of reported deaths in Oregon from February through mid-April exceeded the five-year average for that time period by 348—about 5 percent. At the time he did his calculations, Oregon had just 72 officially reported COVID-19 deaths. That means there were 276 "excess" deaths that require further investigation.
"This year's numbers are radically out of line," Stokes says.
WW asked Charles Rynerson, a demographer and interim director of Portland State University's Population Research Center, to review Stokes' findings. Rynerson says the math is solid but notes there are a variety of factors that could contribute to the higher death total.
"The population in Oregon, and in most of the countries in the FT analysis, is rapidly aging, so there likely would have been more deaths in 2020 than in 2015-19 even without the virus," Rynerson says. "My understanding is that deaths from other causes may have increased due to limited medical resources, canceling appointments and surgeries, and distress." (OHA senior adviser Dr. Melissa Sutton agrees with Rynerson and says the numbers require further investigation.)
Stokes' takeaway: The larger-than-expected death totals (which The New York Times documented in other states and countries) should prompt caution.
"This suggests we should act with an abundance of caution because of the unknowns," Stokes says. "For us to dash back to reopen when doctors are saying we don't know what this [COVID-19] is yet—that could be a mistake."
Excess Deaths: Far more Oregonians have died this year than expected, even adjusting for officially reported COVID-19 deaths.