The first months of the novel coronavirus outbreak likely led to only a small rise in deaths beyond normal levels in Washington this spring, even as the fatalities in other states soared, according to an analysis of preliminary government data.

An analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates there were about 156 more deaths, or 4% more than what would have been expected in Washington across a three-week period that ended April 11. The figure was dramatically lower than in other hard-hit states during the pandemic, including New York and New Jersey, where the number of estimated deaths combined was twice as much as expected.

While the figures are likely to change as states continue to submit data, the CDC analysis offers an early look at the pandemic’s full toll by examining all deaths, not just those already determined to be from COVID-19. A Seattle Times analysis of more detailed but also preliminary data from the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) also indicates there was not a statewide jump in the first quarter of 2020 compared to previous years.

“It’s hard to say for sure why, but it seems that even with the pandemic hitting Washington early, it didn’t seem to hit it as hard as places like New York or New Jersey or Massachusetts,” said Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch at the CDC.

That difference could be due to early social-distancing restrictions in Washington, as well as other factors still being explored, such as the early research on a possibly more infectious strain of the virus in different regions, he said. It’s too soon to tell.

The CDC analyzed death data to determine the number of “excess deaths,” or those above what the agency would expect based on historical data, while accounting for typical reporting lags from states. Excess deaths include deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, and other factors, such as fewer people seeking treatment for other illnesses during the pandemic. Anderson said it doesn’t seem the pandemic significantly slowed reporting, although data from the most recent weeks is particularly incomplete.

Times Watchdog reporting digs deep to expose wrongdoing and hold powerful interests accountable to the public. Support watchdog journalism with a tax-deductible donation to The Seattle Times Investigative Journalism Fund.

In the current data, Washington’s excess weekly deaths reached a peak of 90 during the week ending April 11, about 7% more than the CDC estimated would have occurred. By contrast, the U.S. saw 37% more deaths than predicted for that same week. California and Oregon, also early adopters of social distancing, have so far had similar trends to Washington, although about a dozen other states with varying timelines for restrictions have also seen fewer excess deaths.

Advertising

It further underscores a change from earlier this year when the state found itself at the forefront of the nation’s public health crisis. Washington had been the first state to report a confirmed case of COVID-19 in January, the first to announce a death due to the illness in late February, and the first to track a devastating outbreak of the virus in a nursing home.

Those early sentinel moments of the pandemic led state and local leaders to impose a wave of strict social-distancing measures, including a monthslong stay-at-home order, in an effort to avoid a worst-case scenario of COVID-19 cases overwhelming the health care system.

“It’s very shocking because two or three weeks ago we were getting calls daily wondering how we were handling the spike in deaths,” said Rob Goff, executive director of the Washington State Funeral Directors Association. “And we just weren’t seeing the deaths [that were] being predicted.”

Preliminary state data analyzed by The Seattle Times shows that deaths this year through the end of March hovered below what was reported during the same period in 2019. The trend was not uniform across all counties, as several had increases in deaths from quarter to quarter, with Yakima and Benton counties at the top. Final death data from DOH won’t be available for months.

“We know there is a lag in deaths reported to DOH, but given what we are seeing, we do not see indications of a large increase in overall deaths compared to 2019,” DOH said in a statement to The Seattle Times.

Advertising

In a press conference last week, State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy said her department planned to work with the University of Washington School of Public Health to analyze the data for excess deaths. The DOH, however, was just beginning to analyze trends in death data for the first quarter.

Dr. Stephen Hawes, chair of the University of Washington’s Department of Epidemiology, said he would not be surprised by either a jump or drop in deaths because there is always variation year to year because of factors such as influenza. On top of that, the pandemic introduced new factors that still need to be accounted for as millions of Washingtonians have adapted to Gov. Jay Inslee’s lockdown order.

“Have people reacted by exercising more? Less? Eating better or worse?” Hawes said. “It is too soon to draw conclusions.”

In interviews, researchers raised the possibility that Washington’s early social-distancing measures may have played a role in the state’s avoidance of a more dramatic spike in deaths. But they also cautioned that it was too early to say for certain.

“It’s possible the early implementation of social distancing there may have helped clamp down the spread in the population,” said Dan Weinberger, an associate professor of epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health who analyzed excess deaths for The Washington Post.

It’s also possible that a drop in certain causes of death because of social distancing may be masking what would otherwise be a jump in deaths from COVID-19, Weinberger said.

While some researchers have speculated about a drop of traffic-related deaths in particular, data from the Washington State Department of Transportation so far shows only a modest decline in fatal collisions: 61 in March and April this year compared to the average of 71 for these months over the past five years.

Send us a tip

Tips are the lifeblood of investigative reporting. Good tips are clear, specific, have documents or evidence to back them up and involve a problem with real-world consequences. We accept tips by several methods, including through secure encrypted email, text and phone calls, as well as mail, so a reporter can follow up with you.

More on the coronavirus outbreak