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COVID-19 Data May Be Hiding The Pandemic's Full Impact


Though people in Allegheny County continue to die from COVID-19, data from the state and county show these deaths have not kept pace with the county's spike of positive cases. But there are severe health consequences not captured by this data.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more people are dying this year compared to previous years. While this is to be expected with the pandemic, as many as 30 percent of these fatalities are documented as being from something other than COVID-19.

“We need to figure out what’s going on,” said University of Pittsburgh epidemiologist Dara Mendez. “One way to do that is sort of an almost a vitality review, which allows us to do a sort of deeper dive on these cases of deaths.”

Mendez said it’s possible a large number of deaths are being misdiagnosed as something other than COVID-19. Or perhaps the pandemic is creating situations where people are less likely to seek care for medical emergencies. This might be because people are staying home so as not to risk coronavirus exposure. It's also possible the economic downturn has made people even more reluctant to rack up medical bills.

Excess deaths are not reported on the county level. But since Feb. 1, there may be more than 50,000 of these non-COVID fatalities nationwide. This includes as many as 4,200 Pennsylvanians.

Mendez also warns that not all patients who survive will make full recoveries, as COVID-19 causes damage throughout the body, including in the lungs, heart and kidneys. 

“There's several support groups around surviving COVID and the long-term kind of health effects that people talk about,” said. “This is anecdotal, but I do know some people who are dealing the long-term effects of it, still months later.”

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.