25 Investigates

25 Investigates: Excess mortality shows COVID-19 deaths no hoax

BOSTON — When it comes to the real death toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been a lot of rhetoric and debate over how hospitals are keeping track of the who died from the virus.

25 Investigates has been tracking the COVID-19 deaths in Massachusetts since the spring surge, using data that scientists say goes beyond politics.

It’s what’s known as excess mortality. It’s the number of people who have died beyond what we see in an average week, month or year for example.

The 2020 numbers reveal major event has happened.

But, Lisa Palermo doesn’t need numbers to explain to her the cost of this pandemic.

“He went to the hospital on Easter and passed away the next Saturday,” said Lisa Palermo a COVID-19 widow from Norwood.

Palermo’s husband, Jim, contracted COVID-19 at his nursing home in Norwood.

Boston 25 was outside Norwood Hospital as Lisa sat in vigil as her husband battled the virus in the ICU.

When Jim died April 18th, they were just three weeks shy of their 30th wedding anniversary.

“I just I wasn’t ready to let go yet,” Palermo told Boston 25 News Anchor Kerry Kavanaugh. “COVID had other plans.”

As of Monday, October 5, 2020, Jim was one of more than 9,530 people in Massachusetts who died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

25 Investigates looked at these numbers early into the pandemic. Now we are looking at a longer time period, a total of 6 months. We examined excess mortality data from March through August for 2016 through 2020.

The number of excess deaths has declined since the Spring surge. But the increase we found still shows a significant spike in loss of life.

According the Massachusetts Registry of Vital Records and Statistics, March through August for the last four years saw an average of 28,990 deaths.

March through August of 2020, Massachusetts saw 37,094 deaths. That’s a 28% increase.

“The excess mortality numbers that gives you that 30,000 foot view on a population level of what the consequences truly are,” said Dr. Thomas Tsai with the Harvard School of Public Health.

Tsai says an increase in excess mortality is a key indicator of a major event, but also shows the widespread scale and consequences of the pandemic.

Massachusetts saw one of the sharpest increases in excess mortality in April. The average number of deaths is 4,966. In April 2020, deaths jumped 95% to 9,681.

“This is not a hoax, that there are real human costs behind these numbers,” Tsai said. “These numbers are individual people. And these are individual lives that have been lost.”

“Talk to those family members, that was very real for them,” said Barbara Kazmierczak, who runs two funeral homes in Worcester.

She’s seen firsthand the enormity of COVID-19.

“In August, we were at last year’s number for volume. So that was a considerable increase,” said Kazmierczak.

Numbers all underscored by a wife’s pain and her plea.

“This isn’t a game of hide and seek,” Palermo said. “You’re not gonna find a place to hide from it. If it wants to find you, it’s going to find you.”

The excess death numbers for six months show they have leveled off some. But, a 28% increase is a significant one. By comparison, Tsai says typically there’s very little variation year to year.

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