Excess natural-cause mortality in US counties and its association with reported COVID-19 deaths

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2024 Feb 6;121(6):e2313661121. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2313661121. Epub 2024 Feb 1.


In the United States, estimates of excess deaths attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic have consistently surpassed reported COVID-19 death counts. Excess deaths reported to non-COVID-19 natural causes may represent unrecognized COVID-19 deaths, deaths caused by pandemic health care interruptions, and/or deaths from the pandemic's socioeconomic impacts. The geographic and temporal distribution of these deaths may help to evaluate which explanation is most plausible. We developed a Bayesian hierarchical model to produce monthly estimates of excess natural-cause mortality for US counties over the first 30 mo of the pandemic. From March 2020 through August 2022, 1,194,610 excess natural-cause deaths occurred nationally [90% PI (Posterior Interval): 1,046,000 to 1,340,204]. A total of 162,886 of these excess natural-cause deaths (90% PI: 14,276 to 308,480) were not reported to COVID-19. Overall, 15.8 excess deaths were reported to non-COVID-19 natural causes for every 100 reported COVID-19 deaths. This number was greater in nonmetropolitan counties (36.0 deaths), the West (Rocky Mountain states: 31.6 deaths; Pacific states: 25.5 deaths), and the South (East South Central states: 26.0 deaths; South Atlantic states: 25.0 deaths; West South Central states: 24.2 deaths). In contrast, reported COVID-19 death counts surpassed estimates of excess natural-cause deaths in metropolitan counties in the New England and Middle Atlantic states. Increases in reported COVID-19 deaths correlated temporally with increases in excess deaths reported to non-COVID-19 natural causes in the same and/or prior month. This suggests that many excess deaths reported to non-COVID-19 natural causes during the first 30 mo of the pandemic in the United States were unrecognized COVID-19 deaths.

Keywords: COVID-19; death investigation system; excess mortality; geographic inequities; rural health.

MeSH terms

  • Bayes Theorem
  • COVID-19*
  • Cause of Death
  • Humans
  • Mortality
  • New England
  • Pandemics
  • United States / epidemiology