'Celebrity' or 'Notable' Covid-19 Deaths Call Into Question Rates Of

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A friend commented he personally knew three people who died of coronavirus, none of whom knew or associated with each other, and none of whom had been in places with high rates of infection. The 9,610 reported US coronavirus deaths works out to about one death per 34,000 people, so it seems astronomically unlikely for one person to know three unrelated victims.

I had been thinking along the same lines with respect to celebrity infections and deaths reported in the news. There seem to be too many, relative to the population numbers. The chart below shows the number of “notable people” Wikipedia lists as dying each day in March. The blue line is deaths that don’t mention CoVID-19, the orange line is the total with CoVID-19.

CoVID-19 deaths obviously increased rapidly after the 15th, but there was also an increase in the blue line that almost has to be the result of the virus. The cause of death may not have been reported, or perhaps the case did not meet official criteria for CoVID-19 (for example, the person may have been weakened by the virus, but succumbed to another condition).

An average of 19 notable people died in the first ten days in March 2020, which is close to the average of 21 notable people who died each day in March 2019. But an average of 35 notable people died in the last ten days of March. It seems reasonable to assign those 16 extra deaths to the virus, meaning that for every 100 notable deaths from other causes, 84 notable people died as a result of the virus.

77,000 people were expected to die in the last ten days of March before the virus. If we gross that up by the 84% increase we see among notable people, we project 66,000 deaths due to the virus. But official CoVID-19 reports show only 3,752 deaths in the US over that period.

The notable people list is global, some celebrities are from places with more CoVID-19 mortality than the US. But the list is US-heavy and even Italy reported a 34% increase in total mortality due to CoVID-19 during the last ten days in March, not even half the 84% we observe among notable people. And many non-US people on the list came from places with lower CoVID-19 rates.

We might expect notable people to die from CoVID-19 less often than non-notable people, as they may have better access to healthcare, especially when resources are strained. They probably live less crowded lives than average, although they may travel more and meet more people from faraway places.

It’s possible that dying from CoVID-19 makes a marginally notable person more likely to be included in Wikipedia’s list—but we see the trend even among celebrities whose deaths are not listed as CoVID-19. I cross-checked using lists of pre-defined people, such as major-league baseball former players, and found similar increases (although for baseball only 5 deaths versus an expected 4, so no statistical significance).

None of these factors seems adequate to explain the 18:1 ratio between the increase in death rate of notable people versus the announced CoVID-19 deaths among the general population. Some possible explanations that come to mind (I leave out the “massive conspiracy theory to cover up the seriousness of the crisis” as too implausible to credit).

·         The virus is “harvesting” deaths, either the infection or the associated strain on healthcare resources. There is a temporary blip in deaths as people who were going to die in April expire in the last week of March instead. If so, we should see a decline in non-CoVID notable deaths below average values soon. This commonly happens in heat waves and natural disasters.

·         One or a few events infected many notable people. Notable people tend to congregate with each other, and perhaps many of the excess deaths can be traced to specific events.

·         The official CoVID death counts are significantly understated due to over-strict reporting criteria or missed deaths. The virus may be a contributor to many deaths that are not officially categorized as CoVID-19 cause of death.

I think this is a serious question that deserves a serious answer from public health authorities. Public perceptions may be more influenced by deaths among celebrities and acquaintances than official figures.

Aaron Brown is the author of many books, including The Poker Face of Wall Street.  He's a long-time risk manager in the hedge fund space.  

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