Number Of Arizonan Deaths Jumps 22% From 2019
LAUREN GILGER: The number of Arizonans who died this year is 22% higher than last year. The obvious culprit is the coronavirus, which has claimed more than 5,700 lives here. But the numbers reveal more. Take away the number of deaths by COVID-19 and we still have seen a 10% increase in deaths compared to last year. I spoke with the Arizona Republic's health care reporter, Stephanie Innes, earlier to break down the numbers and find out what else might be behind them.
STEPHANIE INNES: So typically in Arizona we have about 60,000 deaths per year. I looked at the first eight months of the year because that's all we have for 2020 is through the end of August. So I found that we'd had 49,300 deaths through the end of August. Last year at this time we'd had about 40,000 deaths. So that means that we're up by 22%. And by the end of August, we had approximately 5,000 deaths — 5,029 deaths here at the end of August. So we're up about 10, 10% beyond just you know, if you subtract the COVID deaths, we're still up 10% over last year. And there are a few theories as to why that would be.
GILGER: Yeah, let's talk through those. So the first and most —
GILGER: Significant, it sounds like, are delays in care, right? Fewer people seeking help at an emergency room, for example. What are emergency rooms saying? What kind of results might you see there?
INNES: Yeah, I've talked to a number of physicians who work in emergency rooms, and they all have said pretty much the same thing that, you know, they've seen a lot lower volume this year. And there have been some studies showing fewer people coming into [emergency rooms] (ERs) both nationally and statewide with cardiac arrest, which could mean that people are having cardiac arrest and dying at home. They could be letting cardiac issues delay and having delayed care, which could lead to more serious cardiac issues by the time they do get help. So one of the messages that physicians had when I was interviewing them about this is, you know, do go to the emergency room if you have, are having symptoms. They also found the same thing for strokes. People were having stroke symptoms, but not always seeking care right away for those.
GILGER: Interesting. Could chronic disease play into this as well? Just people not seeking care for conditions they might have otherwise gotten more attention for?
INNES: Sure. I mean, some, I did interview a few doctors who said they're seeing a bit of a rush now. But during the pandemic, certainly people with underlying health conditions, which is often chronic diseases like diabetes, for instance, you know, naturally they're afraid of leaving their house because they're at more risk of getting COVID. But the flip side of that is that they're not getting the regular care for their chronic disease, which could put them at higher risk for complications of that disease, up to and including death.
GILGER: One of the things I've heard talked about, and I think you mention in the story as well, is the idea that, that cancer might be up as a result of the pandemic. Well, how would — how does that square? Is it, is it just as we've said, due to another version of lack of care or a lack of seeking care?
INNES: Well, there is some information that cancer diagnoses are down. So if you are getting diagnosed later stage, obviously with cancer, the earlier the better. So there may be more cancer deaths in the future related to the pandemic. Now, I have no evidence that's happening right now. Cancer mortality rates have been falling in recent years, but it's possible that as a, a delayed outcome of this pandemic, we could see more cancer deaths. Now, one would hope that doesn't happen. But if you're getting diagnosed with, say, a serious cancer — well, all cancers are serious — but a cancer like lung cancer that's caught late is going to have a far worse outcome.
GILGER: Right. So, Stephanie, what do doctors say when you talk to them about this, that, that patients should do? I mean, it's, it's, as we say, like understandable that people would be afraid to go into an emergency room, especially if they might have an underlying condition. But is it safe for them? Should they be doing that anyway?
INNES: Yeah. I mean, what one doctor said to me is, you know, your chance of having a bad outcome from having chest pain and shortness of breath and not seeking care is far greater than your chance of going into the hospital and contracting COVID in a hospital setting. You know, the hospitals are being really, obviously, very careful right now about transmission of COVID and they're separating any patient with respiratory symptoms. So, yeah, your risk of having complications from stroke symptoms or cardiac symptoms are far worse than, than your chance of contracting COVID.
GILGER: Last question for you then, Stephanie. I wanted to talk before I let you go about how accurate these numbers are when it comes to COVID-related deaths. There's been many questions about that.
INNES: Yeah, yeah.
GILGER: Are we expecting that these numbers could change as we get better information or are we at a pretty good estimate?
INNES: Well, you know, in terms of deaths, those numbers don't lie. Those are from death certificates. Those are all caused deaths. So when I say deaths are up by 22%, that's from all causes. But COVID deaths, you know, it's possible that there could be some changes that happen. You know, some deaths could be reclassified. There could have been an undercount of some COVID deaths, particularly at the beginning when tests weren't readily available. Some COVID deaths may be other causes such as pneumonia, and they'll be adjusted in the future. And two things I didn't mention that could also be a factor here are suicides and opioid overdoses, but we just don't have definitive data on those yet. But I'm certainly keeping an eye on those because I know from talking to physicians that, that they have seen an increase in at least mental health issues coming into the emergency rooms.
GILGER: All right. That is Stephanie Innes. She covers health care for the Arizona Republic joining us this morning. Stephanie, thank you so much for the time.
INNES: Thanks, Lauren. Thanks for having me.