It will be years before we know the real impact of COVID-19 in both the United States and around the world. That is the nature of a pandemic. More than 100 years later, we still rely on estimates to gauge the impact of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic—the global death totals from that time range from 50 million to 100 million globally. We know the COVID-19 death total is climbing even as states and cities reopen for business. The reality is that when we include a number known as “excess deaths,” the toll of the coronavirus pandemic is much worse than many realize.

US Excess Deaths

One of the factors that prevent us from knowing how terrible a toll the COVID-19 pandemic has today includes limitations on testing. Some people are dying of COVID-19 but never tested for the virus. So, the official death toll of the pandemic currently excludes their death. This common miscalculation is true in the US and around the world. The reality is we are not even sure when the pandemic started in the various countries and borders, it crossed. There are growing reports and evidence that the virus was actually in nations like the US and France long before it was recognized. That means some people may have had the virus, possibly even died by the virus, and they and their doctor had no idea.


A key number to watch for the rest of this year is the Excess Deaths from the National Center for Health Statistics. Excess deaths are the total number of deaths beyond what was predicted by the Centers for Disease control based upon historical models. This number would be higher in the midst of a pandemic, but we are seeing a trend where Excess Deaths are also higher than the predicted death count plus the official COVID-19 death totals in the US. In other words, even when you add in the total number of COVID-19 deaths in the US, there is still a gap. That gap could be explained by additional coronavirus deaths not yet classified as such for the reasons mentioned above.

The Washington Post reviewed these numbers on April 11, and noted there were 37,000

excess deaths
Airman 1st Class Kyle Larson, a medical technicial with 75th Medical Group, screens an incoming patient before entering the Hill Air Force Base, Utah medical clinic March 31, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by Cynthia Griggs)

deaths in the US at that time. The official death total from COVID-19 in the US on April 11, was 24,062. That left nearly 13,000 unexplained deaths beyond the predictive model and known coronavirus death totals. Were those 13,000 deaths beyond the predictive model and coronavirus counts additional pandemic victims? That is the question scientists and doctors are already asking. Frequently, probably more often than not, the answer is yes, and that is why we will see the death totals continue to escalate much higher than we realize even for the present day.

cdc excess deaths

If you click on the image above, you can find the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) tracking of these numbers. Note these numbers are not up to date. They regularly adjust as more data is received and registered through the CDC guidelines.

Global Excess Deaths

The miscount of coronavirus deaths is not an American phenomenon. Unfortunately, the US may be on top of this faster than many other countries around the world. As the pandemic spreads to the developing world, the death totals may lag far behind confirmed case counts, and confirmed case counts may be delayed as testing and other necessary tools to fight the pandemic are slow to arrive in poorer nations.

coronavirus top 10 nations may 12, 2020
Top 10 Nations for Confirmed Cases

There are also instances where nations are merely burying the truth. Vladimir Putin boasted that Russia is fighting the pandemic far more effectively than the rest of the world. While there have been surges in confirmed case counts in Russia that caused the nation to shoot into the top 3 countries in the last couple of weeks, Russia is far behind the rest of the world in coronavirus deaths. Is this the natural delays between confirmed cases and coronavirus deaths that other nations have seen, or is it the result of Russia hiding its death counts under other causes for the sake of a weird national pride. Time will tell.

coronavirus deaths per million population
National coronavirus death counts per 1 million population

For now, it is wise to watch the number of deaths per million. In places where the pandemic has hit hardest like Spain and Italy, deaths per million currently stand at 576 and 511, respectively. For comparison, Russia currently has 14 deaths per 1 million of its population. For the curious, the United States sits between these two groups at 250. Watch for anomalies here. Countries too far removed from the average that other nations are experiencing could be covering up the facts of the pandemic’s impact within their borders or could have significant data reporting issues that will eventually resolve.

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JB Shreve is the author of "How the World Ends: Understanding the Growing Chaos." He has been the host of the End of History podcast since 2012. He has degrees in International Relations and Middle East Studies. His other books include the Intelligence Brief Series. Regular posts and updates from JB Shreve are available at