Nav: Home

Northern Italy -- Official COVID-19 deaths underestimate the full impact of the pandemic

May 18, 2020

According to a study by Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin, the northern Italian city of Nembro recorded more deaths during March 2020 than between January and December 2019. However, only approximately half of all deaths recorded this spring were classified as confirmed COVID-19 deaths. The study shows that the health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic may go far beyond official COVID-19 death counts. It also shows the important role of all-cause mortality in quantifying the full impact of the pandemic. The study's findings have been published in The BMJ*.

During the current pandemic, the northern Italian region of Lombardy has been one of the most severely affected areas in Europe. Despite high death counts officially attributed to COVID-19 during the worst part of the pandemic, doubts were soon raised over the accuracy of these data. Official figures did not appear to reflect actual, observable pressures on the health care system. This was also the case in Nembro, a small town in the Bergamo province of Lombardy, which has a population of 11,500. In order to quantify the true impact of the pandemic on the local health care system, a team of researchers led by Tobias Kurth, MD, ScD, Director of Charité's Institute of Public Health (IPH), studied overall mortality figures, looking at all deaths regardless of their cause. Working alongside colleagues from the Centro Medico Santagostino in Milan, the researchers found the following: During the height of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, the number of all-cause deaths was approximately double that of confirmed COVID-19-related deaths.

In order to accurately quantify mortality rate regardless of cause of death - known as all-cause mortality - the researchers used data for the period between January 2012 and mid-April 2020. They obtained data from several sources: the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT), Nembro's registration office, and the Lombardy region COVID-19 dashboard. "Nembro is a small town with a very stable population and very little immigration and emigration over time," explains Prof. Kurth. He adds: "Given its size and the availability of quality data sources, this town provided the ideal conditions for a robust, descriptive epidemiological study to quantify the impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic as well as its impact on the health of this local community."

According to the researchers' analyses, in recent years the town typically recorded all-cause death counts just over 100 per year. In 2018 and 2019, for instance, the town recorded 128 and 121 deaths, respectively. This contrasts sharply with the 194 deaths seen during the three-and-a-half-month period between 1 January 2020 and 11 April 2020; of these, 151 occurred in March 2020 alone. This corresponds to a monthly all-cause mortality of 154 deaths per 1,000 person years for March 2020, nearly eleven times the rate recorded for the same month of the previous year (14 deaths per 1,000 person years). The largest increase in mortality recorded during the pandemic was seen among people aged 65 and over, with men disproportionately affected. 14 deaths involved people younger than 65.

"In the light of Nembro's otherwise extremely stable all-cause mortality figures, the massive increase in mortality seen during March 2020 can only be interpreted as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic", says the study's first author, Marco Piccininni, who is a researcher at the IPH. Out of a total of 166 deaths recorded during the pandemic (late February to early April 2020), only 85 had tested positive and were subsequently recorded as deaths from COVID-19. "This represents an enormous discrepancy and shows that the pandemic's impact on the health of the population was significantly more pronounced than the official COVID-19 death count would suggest," explains Piccininni. The study's authors believe there are two main reasons for this discrepancy. Firstly, it is likely that not all infected people were identified as such. This is probably attributable to a shortage of materials needed for testing and the fact that not all suspected cases were tested. Secondly, this could be due to people with non-COVID-related conditions having impaired access to health care, either because health system capacities had been exhausted by COVID-19 cases or because of individuals' reluctance to visit the hospital for fear of infection.

"If we are to accurately quantify the health impact of the pandemic, we must not rely on confirmed COVID-19 deaths as the sole metric," emphasizes Prof. Kurth. "To better adapt containment measures to the local situation, consideration should also be given to current data on all-cause mortality from within the relevant region. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to access up-to-date all-cause mortality data. I am pleased that Germany has recently started to make preliminary figures available."
*Piccininni M, Rohmann JL et al., Use of all cause mortality to quantify the consequences of covid-19 in Nembro, Lombardy: descriptive study. BMJ 2020;369:m1835. doi: 10.1136/bmj.m1835

The pandemic in Nembro

Nembro reported its first coronavirus cases towards the end of February 2020. This was soon followed by the introduction of the town's first social distancing measures. On 8 March, Nembro became part of one of Italy's 'red zones' - strict quarantine areas which people were neither permitted to enter nor leave. Residents were only permitted to leave their homes for essential reasons, such as shopping for food or essential types of work. By 11 April, the number of confirmed cases had increased to 218. By 16 April 2020, 85 of these had died. Monthly all-cause mortality decreased during the month of April, which is likely a consequence of the strict community isolation measures.

Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin

Related Public Health Articles:

COVID-19 and the decolonization of Indigenous public health
Indigenous self-determination, leadership and knowledge have helped protect Indigenous communities in Canada during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, and these principles should be incorporated into public health in future, argue the authors of a commentary in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal)
Public health consequences of policing homelessness
In a new study examining homelessness, researchers find that policy such a lifestyle has massive public health implications, making sleeping on the street even MORE unhealthy.
Electronic health information exchange improves public health disease reporting
Disease tracking is an important area of focus for health departments in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pandemic likely to cause long-term health problems, Yale School of Public Health finds
The coronavirus pandemic's life-altering effects are likely to result in lasting physical and mental health consequences for many people--particularly those from vulnerable populations--a new study led by the Yale School of Public Health finds.
The Lancet Public Health: US modelling study estimates impact of school closures for COVID-19 on US health-care workforce and associated mortality
US policymakers considering physical distancing measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 face a difficult trade-off between closing schools to reduce transmission and new cases, and potential health-care worker absenteeism due to additional childcare needs that could ultimately increase mortality from COVID-19, according to new modelling research published in The Lancet Public Health journal.
The Lancet Public Health: Access to identification documents reflecting gender identity may improve trans mental health
Results from a survey of over 20,000 American trans adults suggest that having access to identification documents which reflect their identified gender helps to improve their mental health and may reduce suicidal thoughts, according to a study published in The Lancet Public Health journal.
The Lancet Public Health: Study estimates mental health impact of welfare reform, Universal Credit, in Great Britain
The 2013 Universal Credit welfare reform appears to have led to an increase in the prevalence of psychological distress among unemployed recipients, according to a nationally representative study following more than 52,000 working-age individuals from England, Wales, and Scotland over nine years between 2009-2018, published as part of an issue of The Lancet Public Health journal on income and health.
BU researchers: Pornography is not a 'public health crisis'
Researchers from the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) have written an editorial in the American Journal of Public Health special February issue arguing against the claim that pornography is a public health crisis, and explaining why such a claim actually endangers the health of the public.
The Lancet Public Health: Ageism linked to poorer health in older people in England
Ageism may be linked with poorer health in older people in England, according to an observational study of over 7,500 people aged over 50 published in The Lancet Public Health journal.
Study: Public transportation use linked to better public health
Promoting robust public transportation systems may come with a bonus for public health -- lower obesity rates.
More Public Health News and Public Health Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: The Power Of Spaces
How do spaces shape the human experience? In what ways do our rooms, homes, and buildings give us meaning and purpose? This hour, TED speakers explore the power of the spaces we make and inhabit. Guests include architect Michael Murphy, musician David Byrne, artist Es Devlin, and architect Siamak Hariri.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#576 Science Communication in Creative Places
When you think of science communication, you might think of TED talks or museum talks or video talks, or... people giving lectures. It's a lot of people talking. But there's more to sci comm than that. This week host Bethany Brookshire talks to three people who have looked at science communication in places you might not expect it. We'll speak with Mauna Dasari, a graduate student at Notre Dame, about making mammals into a March Madness match. We'll talk with Sarah Garner, director of the Pathologists Assistant Program at Tulane University School of Medicine, who takes pathology instruction out of...
Now Playing: Radiolab

What If?
There's plenty of speculation about what Donald Trump might do in the wake of the election. Would he dispute the results if he loses? Would he simply refuse to leave office, or even try to use the military to maintain control? Last summer, Rosa Brooks got together a team of experts and political operatives from both sides of the aisle to ask a slightly different question. Rather than arguing about whether he'd do those things, they dug into what exactly would happen if he did. Part war game part choose your own adventure, Rosa's Transition Integrity Project doesn't give us any predictions, and it isn't a referendum on Trump. Instead, it's a deeply illuminating stress test on our laws, our institutions, and on the commitment to democracy written into the constitution. This episode was reported by Bethel Habte, with help from Tracie Hunte, and produced by Bethel Habte. Jeremy Bloom provided original music. Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at     You can read The Transition Integrity Project's report here.