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The actual number of COVID-19 cases and deaths

Reported numbers are staggering, but what about unreported numbers?

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A healthcare worker attends to a COVID-19 patient.

In this Saturday, July 17, 2021 file photo, a healthcare worker attends to a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit of the a hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Associated Press

Keeping track of COVID-19 cases and deaths is not easy. Multiple highly regarded dashboards — like the World Health Organization’s coronavirus dashboard or John Hopkins University’s — can report different numbers and still underreport those numbers.

  • As of July 21, there have been anywhere from 191.1 million to 191.7 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to data from WHO and John Hopkins University, respectively.
  • In the same time period, there have been 4.1 million COVID-19 fatalities, per data from both WHO and John Hopkins University.

Throughout the pandemic and for outbreaks around the world, experts have repeatedly warned that many COVID-19 infections and fatalities may have gone unreported, stated the Deseret News.

  • Now, multiple new studies have estimated just how low these officially reported numbers actually are, according to The Hill.
  • Their findings give a new dimension to the severity of COVID-19, according to The Associated Press.

How many COVID-19 cases and deaths go unreported?

A recent study from MIT has estimated that the actual number of COVID-19 infections is 12 times higher than official estimates, reported MIT. The study also estimated that the actual number of coronavirus fatalities is 50% higher than official numbers.

  • “The magnitude of (the) epidemic is widely under-reported with much variation globally,” wrote the study’s authors, Hazhir Rahmandad, Tse Yang Lim and John Sterman, per The Hill.
  • The findings from the MIT study align closely with a recent study of outbreaks in Jakarta, Indonesia. Based on antibody testing, the study in Jakarta found that almost half of Jakarta’s population — 12 times the official number — may have already contracted COVID-19, reported the Deseret News.

Countries with the largest discrepancies between official cases and estimated cases included Mexico, Iran, Spain, Qatar, Ecuador, the U.K and the U.S., according to the MIT study per The Hill.

  • The U.S. has officially reported about 500,000 coronavirus deaths but other estimates from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimate the U.S. has actually had 700,000 deaths, per NPR.

Another new study on the unreported COVID-19 fatalities in India complements this research while offering a wider picture of the pandemic’s full impact, reported the AP.

  • Excess deaths in India could be 10 times higher than official COVID-19 death tolls, per NPR.
  • Officially, India has reported more than 414,000 coronavirus fatalities. According to the new study, COVID-19 has actually killed anywhere from 3.4 million to 4.7 million people in India, reported the AP.

Why have cases and deaths gone unreported?

In short, coronavirus cases can be undercounted for many reasons, depending on the country and depending on the stage of the pandemic under consideration, reported NPR.

  • Limited testing — particularly at the beginning of the pandemic — along with “administrative chaos” during extreme surges have contributed to undercounts, per NPR.

According to Justin Sandefur, co-author of the recent study on India, having more accurate death counts will help the world “understand what went wrong from a public health and policy perspective,” per NPR.

Will countries adjust their official reported numbers?

In June, Peru became the first of potentially many countries to revise its official coronavirus figures, reported the Deseret News. Before revisions, Peru reported about 68,000 deaths. After revisions, the country reported more than 180,700 deaths.

 ”Accurate accounting of death is also one of the simplest dignities,” said Liana Rosenkrantz Woskie of the Harvard Global Health Institute, per NPR.

“Knowing how and why your family member died is fundamental to grieving,” she said, “but also (fundamental) to knowing that they were valued by society — and their loss might help mitigate future harm.”