What is “excess death”?

There are probably a lot of ways the pandemic has affected your life that are difficult to count. Maybe you’ve lost a friend or loved one. Perhaps you or someone you know has had COVID-19 and struggled to recover. Or maybe you are having a hard time paying bills or buying food. Scientists and statisticians use many different methods to try to quantify the effects of the pandemic. One measurement they look at is the excess death rate

What is the excess death rate?

The excess death rate is a measurement of how many deaths there are this year, as compared to the number of expected deaths. The number of expected deaths is based on data from previous years; it is adjusted for trends that may influence these rates. The number of excess deaths can be calculated by subtracting expected deaths from total deaths. It can also be expressed as a percentage, by dividing the total number of deaths this year by the expected number of deaths. 

What does excess death tell us?

Excess death is a useful number for helping us understand how the pandemic increased the mortality rate. Not every excess death is from someone dying of COVID-19. Some excess deaths might be indirectly caused by the pandemic. For example, you might delay cancer treatment. Or be reluctant to go to an emergency room if you have symptoms of a heart attack. There are also likely many deaths, especially in the early days of the pandemic, that were due to COVID-19 but the patients were not tested. A recent study suggested that about 2 out of 3 excess deaths were due to COVID-19 in 2020. 

Who has been impacted by excess death this year?

Older people make up the majority of COVID-19 deaths. But the CDC estimates that adults aged 25–44 have experienced the largest percentage increase in the number of deaths so far this year. And people of color have disproportionately suffered from excess deaths compared to White Americans.

The figure describes excess deaths in the United States from late January to early October 2020.

A recent study from CDC found that there have been nearly 300,000 excess deaths from late January through October 3, 2020, with about two-thirds of these excess deaths attributed directly to COVID-19. The largest percentage increases in excess deaths were seen among adults aged 25–44 years and among Hispanic or Latino persons.


Last update: November 20, 2020, 4:50 pm ET

Science review: ERS, JAB