Defining COVID-19 Terms: Excess Deaths

October 22, 2020


Elizabeth (Izzy) Montgomery, MPA
Policy Analyst

  • Subscribe for Updates

In this installment in our series explaining key terms and phrases used by public health officials in discussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, we look at the term “excess deaths.”

As the pandemic continues to unfold, it is important to understand its impact on mortality, or death, rates in the U.S. One way of evaluating this is to estimate the number of excess deaths that have taken place since the beginning of the pandemic.

Simply, excess deaths are defined as the difference between the observed number of deaths during a specific time frame and the expected number of deaths during the same period. ACHI has included excess death data resources on our website, including an interactive dashboard of excess deaths associated with COVID-19 developed by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). We also have included a dashboard of daily deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic by state, developed by the Health Care Cost Institute.

As outlined in our explainer on death reporting, states must submit standardized death certificate information to the CDC for public health surveillance efforts. The National Center for Healthcare Statistics within the CDC provides weekly updates on COVID-19-related death data and other resources.

Researchers rely on death data collected by the CDC to design studies to better understand the role of COVID-19’s mortality burden. For example, a new analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that excess deaths are up significantly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers identified a 20% increase over expected deaths in the U.S., or 225,530 excess deaths, between March 1 and Aug. 1 of this year. Of those excess deaths, 67% were attributed to COVID-19. In Arkansas during the same time period, there were 1,221 excess deaths, with 48% of them attributed to COVID-19.

Estimates of excess deaths can help provide a fuller view of the pandemic’s impact than official COVID-19 death counts alone. Excess deaths may include COVID-19 deaths that were inaccurately attributed to other causes, as well as deaths from other causes that were indirectly impacted by the pandemic, such as disruptions in health care.

Skip to content