25 Investigates

25 Investigates: 2020 excess deaths underscore scope of the pandemic in Mass.

BOSTON — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 2020 was the deadliest year on record in the history of the United States, topping 3 million deaths for the first time.

400,000 more people died in 2020 than did in 2019.

Throughout the pandemic, 25 Investigates has been tracking the real impact of lives lost, following a key metric called excess mortality.

25 Investigates has analyzed excess deaths every few months during the pandemic in 2020.

12,157 people died last year in Massachusetts of COVID-19, according to the Department of Public Health. But, the number of virus-related deaths is often questioned and debated. Skeptics believe the numbers are skewed and that most of the people who died of COVID-19 would have died anyway because of medical conditions or advanced age.

That’s why we decided to take a closer look at another set of numbers. Anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh has the preliminary excess death numbers for all of 2020 that show the devastating impact of COVID-19 in the Commonwealth.

Excess mortality is the number of people who have died beyond what we see in an average week, month or year. Looking at the Massachusetts Registry of Vital Records and Statistics, we found a significant jump in total deaths in 2020.

2020 excess mortality numbers reveal in the last five years, Massachusetts averaged around 59,000 (59,212) deaths a year.

In 2020, the death total jumped 16% to 68,852.

That’s 9,640 excess deaths in Massachusetts last year.

25 Investigates brought these numbers to local experts.

“The rate of growth and the excess mortality is unprecedented. There’s no other way of putting it,” said Dr. Thomas Tsai, Assistant Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School, Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Doctor Tsai says excess mortality is a very real mark of the pandemic’s toll.

“The excess fatality is an objective benchmark of the burden in terms of deaths to our loved ones over the course of the pandemic compared to prior years,” he said.

Doctor Jeremy Faust is an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical, who’s also been closely following excess mortality. He too says it proves how devastating COVID-19 was.

“March and April of last year, we saw these huge spikes in Massachusetts,” Doctor Faust said. “We’re not just rearranging deck chairs, these were early lives lost.”

But let’s compare 2020 excess deaths with deaths in Massachusetts attributed to COVID-19.

There were 12,157 COVID-19 deaths, according to the DPH. 25 Investigates analysis revealed 9,640 excess deaths.

That’s a difference of 2,517 in favor of virus-related deaths.

How do experts account for that difference? There are few ways. First, undercount of COVID deaths at the start of the pandemic due to lack of testing.

Then, there are what they call the tragic biproducts of the pandemic.

“My overall impression is that the pie chart is really a lot of its Coronavirus,” said Dr. Faust. “A lot of it is unintentional drug overdoses. And, then we’re seeing a little bit of an uptick in things like motor vehicle collisions after the shutdown. And, also, even homicides.”

Our experts say people could doubt the scope of the pandemic if they didn’t experience loss firsthand since we have lived so much of it ‘virtually’.

But they say the numbers don’t lie, adding if it were not for COVID-19, many people would still be alive.

“These are deaths that would not have been lost this past year,” said Dr. Tsai.

Doctor Faust is already looking at excess deaths in 2021 and says there were an excess of 300 deaths a week in January and early February. They have started trending back down. Doctors and researchers are hopeful with vaccinations and continued safe social practices more lives will be saved this year.

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