Over- and under-estimation of COVID-19 deaths

July, 2021


The ratio of COVID-19-attributable deaths versus “true” COVID-19 deaths depends on the synchronicity of the epidemic wave with population mortality; duration of test positivity, diagnostic time window, and testing practices close to and at death; infection prevalence; the extent of diagnosing without testing documentation; and the ratio of overall (all-cause) population mortality rate and infection fatality rate. A nomogram is offered to assess the potential extent of over- and under-counting in different situations. COVID-19 deaths were apparently under-counted early in the pandemic and continue to be under-counted in several countries, especially in Africa, while over-counting probably currently exists for several other countries, especially those with intensive testing and high sensitization and/or incentives for COVID-19 diagnoses. Death attribution in a syndemic like COVID-19 needs great caution. Finally, excess death estimates are subject to substantial annual variability and include also indirect effects of the pandemic and the effects of measures taken.

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