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Here’s how the US failed in its response to the coronavirus pandemic

Published Oct 13th, 2020 7:35PM EDT
Coronavirus Update
Image: stnazkul/Adobe

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  • A few new studies show how the US has failed in its response to the coronavirus pandemic so far, from the death toll to the mental disorders directly linked to COVID-19 fatalities.
  • Researchers compared America’s coronavirus death rate to other developed nations, showing the US failed to reduce the number of casualties as significantly as other nations.
  • Other scientists also showed an excess of deaths in the US during the March-July period compared to expectations. Not all of the extra deaths were directly linked to COVID-19 infections.
  • Separately, psychiatrists estimate that each death impacts an average of 9 people, and some of them have to deal with prolonged grief.

America has been one of the many unpleasant surprises of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Various COVID-19 mismanagement issues allowed the virus to spread more efficiently than in other countries. Contrary to the Trump administration’s discourse, the US failed to control the pandemic compared to other countries, especially developed nations with access to similar resources. According to the latest figures, nearly 8.04 million people have been infected in the US so far, including the US president and many of his closest collaborators. Over 220,000 Americans died of COVID-19 complications along the way.

Those stats keep the US at the top of coronavirus rankings, two positions it hasn’t lost since topping the charts. Trump’s opponents would likely criticize the government’s performance regardless of the administration’s success at handling the pandemic, as it’s an election year. And Trump would defend his record against all criticism. But the science shows how badly the US has failed when it comes to managing the pandemic so far.

A series of new studies that Ars Technica compiled shows the US COVID-19 epidemic’s scope compared to other developed nations, highlighting the various problems that impacted the nation’s response to the health crisis.

Researchers from Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania compared the death rates for 18 high-income countries during three separate time windows, looking at the evolution of death rates as countries developed measures to reduce the spread. The JAMA Network research letter looked at the death rate per 100,000 people from three intervals ending on September 19th — the start dates were February 13th, May 10th, and June 7th.

The US was in the “high mortality” category from the start, with 60 deaths per 100,000 people in February. This was in line with major outbreaks in Europe, including Belgium (86), Italy (59), Spain (65), and the UK (63). But those countries were able to drop their COVID-19 death rates significantly by May 10th and June 7th. Belgium averaged 12 deaths per 100,000 people in May and then 4 a month later. Italy’s figures were 9 and 3, respectively. The death rate in the UK fell to 16 and then 5.

The US death rate dropped as well, but not as significantly as in those countries that were able to flatten the curve. The averages were at 37 and stayed that way since May and then dropped to 27 in June. The US reported record coronavirus infections over the summer compared to European nations. “After the first peak in early spring, US death rates from COVID-19 and from all causes remained higher than even countries with high COVID-19 mortality,” the researchers wrote. “This may have been a result of several factors, including weak public health infrastructure and a decentralized, inconsistent US response to the pandemic.”

Sweden, which went for a herd immunity approach, had figures similar to the US at those three stages. The country averaged 57, 23.5, and 10 deaths in February, May, and June.

A different research letter published in the same JAMA Network looked at the excess deaths from COVID-19 and other causes in the United States from March to July. Researchers from Yale and the Virginia Commonwealth University found that 225,000 more people died than expected, representing a 20% increase for the period. According to data from death certificates, only 67% of those extra deaths were caused by COVID-19 complications. The rest were either misclassified or caused by pandemic-related problems.

Howard Bauchner, editor-in-chief of JAMA, and Phil Fontanarosa, JAMA’s executive editor, analyzed the two studies in a JAMA editorial. “The importance of the estimate […] — which suggests that for the entirety of 2020, more than 400 000 excess deaths will occur — cannot be overstated, because it accounts for what could be declines in some causes of death, like motor vehicle crashes, but increases in others, like myocardial infarction.”

“These deaths far exceed the number of US deaths from some armed conflicts, such as the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and deaths from the 2009 H1N1 (Swine flu) pandemic, and approach the number of deaths from World War II,” the editors wrote.

The researchers expect the excess deaths to reach 400,000 for the year if the pandemic remains unchecked.

A third article published this week looked at the psychological impact of COVID-19. Researchers from the NYU Grossman School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry found that each death impacts an average of 9 family members, “which projects to an estimated 2 million bereaved individuals in the US.”

“Of central concern is the transformation of normal grief and distress into prolonged grief and major depressive disorder and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder,” the researchers wrote. “Prolonged grief disorder is characterized by at least 6 months of intense longing, preoccupation, or both with the deceased, emotional pain, loneliness, difficulty re-engaging in life, avoidance, feeling life is meaningless, and increased suicide risk. Once established, these conditions can become chronic with additional comorbidities such as substance use disorders.”

The researchers said that prolonged grief affects approximately 10% of bereaved individuals, “but this is likely an underestimate for grief related to deaths from COVID-19.”

That’s on top of other mental disorders that the pandemic might have exacerbated. “The stress and social disruption caused by the pandemic has heightened depression and anxiety globally, and is adversely affecting many individuals with preexisting psychiatric disorders and substance use disorders,” the researchers write.

“The US faces monumental challenges,” going forward, the psychiatrists explained, looking at specific strategies that might be used to treat mental health issues. They warn that “a second wave of devastation is imminent, attributable to mental health consequences of COVID-19. The magnitude of this second wave is likely to overwhelm the already frayed mental health system, leading to access problems, particularly for the most vulnerable persons.”

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.