The Real Death Toll

The Real Death Toll

Throughout the pandemic, the U.S. has had outsize access to lifesaving supplies like vaccines, antiviral treatments, face masks and testing kits. The country has also spent trillions of dollars in pandemic stimulus funds and enacted a raft of policies at the local and national level to combat the coronavirus.

And yet, despite its distinct advantage, the U.S. has had more deaths above normal levels during the pandemic than most other wealthy countries, according to data released by the World Health Organization this month.

The W.H.O. found that, overall, U.S. deaths were 15 percent above normal — a number surpassed by only four other large countries in the same income group: Chile, the Czech Republic, Poland and Romania.

Deaths in the U.S. rose even higher than in several countries with far fewer resources, including Argentina and the Philippines.

Globally, some of the countries with the largest increase in death rates during the first two years of the pandemic were those in the upper- and middle-income groups, including Ecuador, Mexico and Peru, where inequality and graft thwarted its pandemic response.

Poor and developing countries generally fared worse than the wealthiest ones. But many of the lowest-income countries — including most African countries — were not included in the charts because their data is less reliable.

The excess mortality figures measured the difference between the number of people who died in 2020 and 2021 and the number of people who would have been expected to die during that time if the pandemic had not happened. These latest estimates by the W.H.O. are what many scientists say are the most reliable indication of the total impact of the pandemic so far, and they include deaths from other preventable illnesses when hospitals were overwhelmed with patients.

The W.H.O. figures also showed how much some countries struggled to count pandemic-related deaths accurately. India, for example, recorded 481,000 deaths in 2020 and 2021. The W.H.O. estimated that the country had 4.7 million excess deaths during the same period. India has rejected the W.H.O.’s findings.

The global toll — around 15 million — is more than twice the number of Covid-19 deaths reported in official government calculations, according to the health agency. Across the world, about 13 percent more people died in the first two years of the pandemic than what would’ve been expected in normal times.

Updated 

May 25, 2022, 8:53 p.m. ET

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A small, new study about respiration and exercise provides some rather startling answers.

The research, published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at the number of aerosol particles exhaled by 16 people at rest and during workouts. These tiny bits of airborne matter can transmit the coronavirus if someone is infected.

At rest, the participants breathed out about 500 particles per minute, the study found. But when they exercised, that total soared to more than 76,000 particles per minute, on average, during the most strenuous exertion. These findings help explain why several notable Covid superspreader events have occurred at indoor gym classes.

But these risks can be mitigated, my colleague Gretchen Reynolds reports. Ask your gym to open the windows and make sure its air-conditioning units draw air from outside to replace air filled with aerosol emissions. Maintain distance from others — at least eight to 10 feet during strenuous workouts — and wear an N95 mask, and check the rate of Covid cases in your community.

But keep moving. This study “is more incentive to ensure great ventilation and no crowding in gyms,” said Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech and an expert on airborne transmission of viruses. It’s not a reason to skip workouts. “There are so many benefits to exercise,” she added, “that I’ll keep doing it in my well-ventilated, uncrowded gym.”

I just came back from college, and my parents are both positive for Covid. After spending my year learning biology and working in a hospital, I am very wary of the disease. However, my family is making fun of me for wanting to wear a mask around the house and quarantining in my room. It makes me really sad that my family won’t respect my wishes to stay safe. I saw too many horror stories at the hospital involving Covid. I want to get back to normal, but this doesn’t feel that normal to me.

— Adira Altman, Providence, R.I.

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