Still looking for helpful numerical comparisons to make sense of COVID-19 deaths

A list of the most deaths on a single day has been making the social media rounds. Titled “The Deadliest Days in American History,” spots #4-7 are recent days with COVID-19 deaths following the Galveston Hurricane, the battle of Antietam, and September 11, 2001. But, the numbers on the list are not what they seem:

An infographic listing the "Deadliest Days in American History."
I first saw the image on Facebook.

For one thing, a list of the “deadliest days” in American history would include days with the most deaths, not the most deaths from one discrete event. On all of the days included, more people in the United States died than the numbers listed. According to Reuters, 2,861 COVID-19 deaths were indeed reported last Thursday. But that doesn’t account for the number of people who died from heart disease (last week’s daily average was 1,532 deaths), lung and tracheal cancer (last week’s daily average was about 560 deaths), or chronic kidney disease (last week’s daily average was about 290 deaths). Deaths from drug overdoses have also been reaching record highs this year, a trend that may have been worsened by the pandemic. (Obviously, more people died on the days of the Galveston hurricane, the Battle of Antietam, 9/11, and Pearl Harbor, too.)

By its own rules, the list is also incomplete. More than 3,000 people died in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which isn’t mentioned, nor is the 1899 San Ciriaco hurricane, which killed more than 3,300 people in Puerto Rico over the course of six to nine hours. While we’re at it, the population of the United States is much larger now. The U.S. was home to about one-tenth of the current population during the Battle of Antietam. Losing 3,600 people back then would be like losing 36,000 people now.

But yes, the general idea behind this list—and other attempts to communicate the horrors of the pandemic as a set of digestible facts—is worthwhile. It can be helpful to compare the number of deaths specifically from the coronavirus to other historical events in which there were huge losses of American life. More than 286,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19 thus far. Compare that to the 116,000 Americans who died in World War I; 405,000 Americans who died in World War II; 37,000 Americans who died in the Korean War; and 58,000 Americans who died in the Vietnam War. The 1918 flu pandemic killed 675,000 Americans, the 1968 influenza A pandemic killed 100,000 Americans, and the 2009 H1N1 pandemic killed 12,469 Americans.

The general idea may be a good one: similar numbers reported day after day lose their power. It can be hard for the general public to interpret large numbers in the abstract, as this earlier post about comparing an earlier death figure from COVID-19 to my community’s population. The list tries to place the daily death totals in historical context by noting that these are not just normal numbers; they are high numbers for any day in American history.

Yet, as noted above, the numbers do not quite work out. Perhaps the list should have a new title like “Days with the most deaths directly attributable to unusual causes” since it ignores all causes of death on particular days. And even then, other natural disasters are ignored and putting the numbers in a different context – as a percent of the population as a whole – also changes the list.

The list might still spur people to action, even if the list has flaws. And this was probably the goal of the list in the first place: it is not meant to be an academic study on the topic but a call to action. Like many statistics, these numbers are used in a way intended to nudge people toward different behavior.

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