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RI deaths spiked in early spring, but role of COVID-19 is still unclear

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – While COVID-19 likely fueled an unusually high number of overall deaths during April in Rhode Island, public health officials say they don’t yet know how much the disease contributed to the trend.

A Target 12 analysis of total weekly deaths dating back to 2016 shows 1,168 people died this year from March 29 to May 2, which is more than the same five-week periods in each of the last five years.  

The elevated number of deaths compared with normal trend – sometimes called “excess deaths” – is 114, or 10%, more than the average number of people who died during that period between 2016 and 2019, the analysis shows.

Public health officials have not yet studied the public health crisis to determine correlation between COVID-19 and the elevated deaths in Rhode Island, making it tough to tell exactly what’s behind the trend. But the R.I. Department of Health nonetheless suspects the disease is playing a role.

“It is a little early for us to make any final determinations about causes and trends, but when we do a deep analysis on our 2020 death numbers, we expect the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic to be evident,” Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken wrote in an email.

The 114 excess deaths reported this year, however, is far below the 359 deaths associated with COVID-19 that the Health Department reported during that same time period, raising questions about how much of a difference the disease is making.

People who die with COVID-19 are often fighting at least one or two other illnesses, but the deaths are still counted as “COVID-19 associated” even if the primary cause is something else, such as pneumonia, diabetes or cancer. A similar accounting method is used to measure flu-related deaths.

“There is very often more than one health condition involved in someone’s death,” Wendelken explained last month, noting that the state’s accounting method is in accordance with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But health officials are not discounting the possibility that other factors are also fueling the higher number of deaths recorded during April. Fatal overdoses is one metric they are watching closely.

The COVID-19 public health crisis struck at the same time the state and much of the country was already grappling with an opioid crisis that’s claimed the lives of hundreds of Rhode Islanders in recent years. An average of 302 Rhode Islanders died of drug overdoses annually from 2014 to 2019.

And there’s at least some evidence to suggest 2020 could be worse than usual, as the Health Department reports overdose deaths were relatively high through the first two months of the year compared to the last five years. (More recent data are not yet completed.)

“There are signs that we may have seen an increase, but it is too early to say definitively,” Wendelken said. “Toxicology tests are pending on many cases. We should have a little more clarity in the near future.”

Rhode Island’s excess deaths experience mirrors what’s been seen in several other states and the United States overall, according to data provided by the CDC. But the number pales in comparison to New York City, where the pandemic has hit hardest.

About 32,000 New York City residents died between March 11 and May 2, far exceeding the normal amount of roughly 8,000, meaning excess deaths totaled about 24,000, according to a recent study by the city’s Department of Health.

As in Rhode Island, however, New York City health officials are not yet sure exactly how to explain some of those elevated numbers, saying only about 18,000 of the 24,000 excess deaths are likely attributable to COVID-19.

The remaining 5,000 or so deaths may still be related to the pandemic in one way or another, according to the city’s health officials, but that is currently “unknown and requires further investigation.”

In Rhode Island, the recent spike in excess deaths coincides with when the state started reporting COVID-19 deaths, supporting the likelihood that the two are related. And the increase marks a sharp divergence from the prior 12-week period, when weekly deaths remained relatively consistent with prior years.

Unlike other states, Rhode Island did not see an unusual spike in deaths during the first three months of the year, according to a Target 12 analysis last month. Deaths are cyclical, with more typically happening in the earlier months of the year.

As more data becomes available, the overall picture could start to look clearer in Rhode Island. The number of deaths associated with COVID-19 has roughly doubled to 756 since the state’s most recent available weekly data ended May 2.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

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