On an average 2018 day in Michigan, 271 people died.
About 69 died of heart disease. Another 58 from cancer. Third on the list was chronic lower respiratory diseases, with about 16 deaths per day.
Fast forward to 2020, and the coronavirus is on pace to be the leading cause of death in April, averaging nearly 100 deaths per day, using the most conservative state counts.
And most other major causes of death aren’t seeing declines in numbers. With the added surge of COVID-19 deaths, April 2020 was the deadliest month in Michigan since 2000, with 11,713 deaths and counting.
That doesn’t surprise hospital workers like Detroit Medical Center emergency room Dr. Robert Klever.
“It hasn’t been easy at times. The amount of deaths we see from coronavirus is quite remarkable,” Klever said. “Right now, we see more deaths in a week than we (normally) see in a whole month. And a couple times we’re seeing more deaths in a day than we see in a month.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the deadliest month in Michigan this century was January 2018. Cancer, stroke and heart disease deaths were a bit higher than normal, while pneumonia and flu deaths and COPD deaths were at or near record levels, that month.
In total, 9,477 people died in January 2018 in Michigan – well above the 20-year average of about 7,500 deaths per month and a couple hundred more than the previous record.
But deaths during the pandemic are shattering old records.
The four deadliest weeks in Michigan this century line up with the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Michigan: the weeks ending in April 4, April 11, April 18 and April 25. And numbers are still trickling in, per Michigan Department of Health and Human Services officials.
The common denominator is clear, experts say: It’s because of the coronavirus.
“There are more people dying, absolutely,” said Dr. Teena Chopra, Wayne State University infections diseases professor and DMC corporate medical director of hospital epidemiology. “If you compare our data to previous months, previous years, we have a higher number of deaths. And these are due to COVID – clearly. And it’s not just our hospital. All of the hospitals nationally have higher deaths, because of COVID.”
Of Michigan’s 11,713 deaths in April, 2,747 are attributed to the coronavirus, according to state data taken from death certificates — making it the leading cause of death.
Michigan’s publicized data for coronavirus deaths – which currently stands at 4,915 – shows slightly higher numbers for two reasons: It includes deaths in which COVID-19 was a primary or associated cause of death, and that data is available faster since its based off hospital reports instead of death certificates, said Jeff Duncan, MDHHS director of the Division for Vital Records and Health Statistics.
Coronavirus has been the primary cause of death for more than 3,800 people in Michigan since the pandemic started in March.
Death totals bust coronavirus myths
The high number of COVID-19 deaths have caused some to question the numbers on social media. Claims have circulated that hospitals get paid more when a death is labeled a COVID-19 fatality; and that deaths are on par for a typical year – people are just dying for a different reason.
Doctors and experts refute both claims.
“You don’t get paid when someone dies. You get paid for caring for somebody,” said Ruthanne Sudderth, senior vice president of public affairs at the Michigan Health and Hospital Association. “What hospitals receive in payment from the federal government, the CARES Act funding, the state funding – that is for caring for COVID patients. It is not related to the number of deaths.”
While some funding is tied to how many COVID-19 patients a hospital has, that’s black and white, based on whether a person’s swab tests positive or negative.
Chopra said the coronavirus can also unearth underlying conditions, such as heart disease, pneumonia or arrhythmias, making it a gray area for doctors when determining what’s the primary cause of death and what’s an associated cause.
The second claim, that elderly people – who are most affected by the coronavirus – would have died now from other causes, is also incorrect, experts say.
State vital statistics separate deaths by week, showing a surge in total deaths of all causes. The spike starts when the pandemic hit Michigan in late March. Some weeks have seen 150% to 160% of the deaths expected, compared to the same weeks in 2019.
A New York Times graphic shows Michigan is seeing one of the largest increases in deaths – versus what was expected – in the the nation.
The nature of the pandemic can also cause changes in death trends, experts said. For example, deaths from vehicle crashes could decrease as less people are driving, but some other death categories could increase as people ignore health warning signs in hopes of avoiding the hospital, Sudderth said.
Heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, chronic lower respiratory disease, diabetes and influenza all saw double-digit percentage increases in deaths during the last week of March and first two weeks of April – compared to the same weeks in 2019.
As COVID-19 numbers slow down, hospitals are returning to most of their normal functions – excluding procedures like cosmetic surgeries, Sudderth said.
But it’s important people understand the true death toll COVID-19 has caused so far, Chopra said, as the state grapples with how to ease its precautions.
“The more mortalities we are seeing gives us an indication and a lesson,” Chopra said. “We have to be prepared for what’s coming with the second and the third surges of this disease.”
COVID-19 PREVENTION TIPS
In addition to washing hands regularly and not touching your face, officials recommend practicing social distancing, assuming anyone may be carrying the virus.
Health officials say you should be staying at least 6 feet away from others and working from home, if possible.
Use disinfecting wipes or disinfecting spray cleaners on frequently-touched surfaces in your home (door handles, faucets, countertops) and carry hand sanitizer with you when you go into places like stores.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has also issued an executive order requiring people to wear face coverings over their mouth and nose while inside enclosed, public spaces.
Read all of MLive’s coverage on the coronavirus at mlive.com/coronavirus.
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