Before dawn broke in Riverside, California, political scientist Kim Yi Dionne grabbed her iPhone from the bedside table to check the grim daily toll of covid-19. Deaths were a bit lower in the United States that morning. But like other hardened watchers of such tallies, Dionne was skeptical that the pandemic was easing. More likely it was just a quirk, she thought, a product of the natural rise and fall in the statistical flow, a bureaucratic rhythm in counting the dead.
This macabre ritual – searching for meaning in numbers that pulse up and down, day after day – is one countless Americans have adopted. Johns Hopkins University, the source of data for many popular covid tracking sites, is registering about 4 billion hits on its pandemic dashboard each day, presumably because many people are refreshing regularly. And the news is never good, only better or worse versions of awful, as the nation endures death at a pace rarely seen even during its most lethal public health disasters and most violent days of war.
Watchers of the daily death counts are looking for different things: Hints of the future, understanding of the past, a sense of scale, a sense of loss, a wisp of hope.
But as Memorial Day arrives, there have been few organized rituals of collective mourning aside from President Donald Trump’s order to lower flags to half staff in honor of nearly 100,000 covid-19 deaths. Daily reckonings with mortality counts, meanwhile, have become proxies for images of flag-draped coffins that have become the standard symbol for America’s tragedies.
“It’s not the best way to do it. It’s not that healthy,” said Dionne, an assistant professor at University of California Riverside. “The data give me a way of thinking about concerns I have for other people I care about … It’s a way for me to channel my concern because I can’t really do it another way.”
Trump has sent military jets soaring through the skies above many U.S. cities, including New York, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., to celebrate the doctors, nurses and other medical personnel playing heroic roles in combating covid-19. But grieving has been done largely in isolation, or over Zoom or FaceTime. Emails have taken the place of hugs. Funerals have gone online to avoid spreading more disease.
Against this backdrop, the mounting national mortality counts have taken on unusual resonance, say those who follow them, as well as an unquestionably political character, fueling debates over who failed and how that will shape November’s elections. Trump and his allies have begun spinning conspiracy theories about the data being inflated, defying the judgement of epidemiologists and experts in mortality statistics, who say the current counts are almost certainly too low.
But as experts study these issues, the online death counters have become the Dow Jones tickers of the coronavirus, a way to keep track that’s bloodless, yet, for some, an experience that might be called micro-grief.
“I have a couple of them that I watch,” said bioethicist Kelly Hills, co-founder of Rogue Bioethics in Massachusetts. “It’s grim, and it’s soothing. It’s repetitive distancing, for lack of a better term … Everybody gets the same data point every day and filters it into their own lives.”
The death counts that appear hour after hour are the products of elaborate processes, as individual data points rise from thousands of sources across the country.
First, come the physicians who declare individual causes of death and report them to health departments, which have been posting state and local covid-19 mortality counts on publicly available websites. From there, the tallies are scraped, studied for anomalies and compiled by tracking sites, such as Johns Hopkins’ or the one The Washington Post publishes on its homepage, which for weeks has been among the most viewed features on The Post’s website.
Regular followers of this data long ago noticed the distinctive decline during weekends, when reporting is stalled or delayed as some offices close, then the rise in the early part of each new week – often peaking Wednesday or Thursday – before falling off again.
Some of the nation’s leading brains study these numbers for what they reveal about our ongoing public-health disaster. Epidemiologists look for hints of transmission dynamics. Demographers try to understand the scale of mortality. Political professionals look for data that can be weaponized in the coming campaigns.
For all of these purposes, the data from online trackers is imperfect. It often lags days behind actual deaths, weeks behind infections and even farther behind the public policy decisions that may contribute to the spread or stifling of coronavirus.
But nothing rivals death counts in their power to shape our understanding of catastrophic events.
“Mortality is a lagging indicator, and there are limits to what it can tell you,” said Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and demographer at the University of California Irvine. But “in some ways, it’s the truest indicator.”
Noymer routinely checks the coronavirus page on the statistics site Worldometer, which has seen its traffic surge in recent months according to a CNN report focusing on unanswered questions about its ownership and management. The Post received no response to requests for information from Worldometer.
Those craving their daily or hourly data fix have several options. Google offers covid-19 mortality data for those who type search queries on death counts. Many individuals and institutions tweet the numbers. News sites in many cases have their own trackers. City and county health departments across the nation have improved the access and transparency of this data, so most Americans can see how daily death rates are rising or falling in their own communities – or those of their friends or families.
But no matter the site, the overall picture is the same. The United States has more than double the number of covid-19 fatalities of any other nation, with the United Kingdom a distant second. The overall national count of confirmed cases, at nearly 1.6 million, is more than the combined totals of the next six nations – Russia, Spain, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Italy and France.
The covid-19 death toll, despite months of severe public restrictions to slow its spread, remains on track to exceed the U.S. death toll of the highly lethal flus of 1957 (116,000) and 1968 (100,000) while likely falling short of the Spanish Flu, which killed an estimated 675,000 Americans and 50 million people worldwide in 1918 and 1919.
But Noymer, who uses his daily data fix to update what he calls a “mini model” of pandemic mortality, isn’t even sure about that when it comes to the United States. His current projected total: 1.4 million American dead through 2024 if the covid-19 death rate stays roughly the same.
“The 1918 flu is in the annals of history as one of the worst things to happen to human health,” said Noymer. “So when we’re in that territory, that’s pretty serious.”
Tara C. Smith, a Kent State University epidemiologist, tracks Worldometer and the Johns Hopkins site, using them to monitor covid-19 deaths. She has particular interest in variations by region and demographic groups and also tracks the overall rise and fall of the pandemic.
“It’s slowing a little bit,” Smith said cautiously.
The gradual downward trend in deaths doesn’t keep Smith from worrying as she pores over the statistics. What she sees in her daily encounter with mortality data – and other metrics – is how far there still is to go in testing, in contact tracing, in the basic science of transmission.
If someone had told her in January that the world’s richest and mightiest nation would still be struggling with these public health basics four months later, she would have shaken her head.
“I would not have have believed that,” Smith said.
But it’s all there, in the grim data that just keeps coming.
For Dionne, who studies how politics compare across nations and whose own family spans the globe from California to Colorado to South Korea, regularly checks Twitter, the Johns Hopkins site, some news sites and also the Riverside County, California, health department, for the death toll in her own community.
Her full morning ritual can take 20 or 30 minutes, while her partner and children are still sleeping. This kaleidoscope of data also helps Dionne’s mind, even hough it is trained in statistics, to grapple with the human scale of tragedy.
One cousin, whose hacking cough and red, weary eyes were early signs of severe illness coming on, already has survived covid-19. But what is the risk to Dionne’s retired mother and stepfather in suburban Las Vegas, where daily deaths have fallen but communities are rapidly re-opening, risking a second wave? What about her cousins in Seoul? And, on a professional level, what’s going on in African nations, such as Malawi, that Dionne has studied with particular interest? Is that outbreak she’s heard about among truck drivers in Tanzania showing up in official statistics yet?
Yet feeding Dionne’s mind goes only so far. When a university colleague mentioned in an email that her father had just died of covid-19, the news shook her. In a subsequent exchange online, the colleague shared pictures of her late father just weeks earlier, at Easter. He was 94 but still appeared strong.
Dionne was glad to share the grief, to make a connection, but it also felt inadequate.
“For me, I feel like the people who are being lost, we’re not bearing witness to that,” she said.
Soon after, her colleague’s father appeared to Dionne again – as one more anonymous data point on her iPhone during her restless daily encounter with death.