For those who view the pandemic through the prism of politics agreeing on even basic facts has been a challenge.  Mix in constantly evolving science and variations of the virus and it’s understandable that some people simply don’t know what – or who – to believe.  You may wonder what’s the best indicator of the pandemic’s health toll: Case counts?  Hospitalizations? Positivity rate?

Epidemiologists track the ultimate indicator of health – and that is death. Every year the number of people who die remains relatively consistent.  In fact, the annual number of deaths in the State of Illinois (from all causes) varied by only 1,000 people in each of the three years before Covid-19 arrived.  However, in the two years since the pandemic began 35,000 more Illinois residents died than is typical.  These deaths are referred to as “excess deaths” and as WGN Investigates has reported, they are a barometer of the pandemic’s true toll.

Provisional death data obtained from the Illinois Department of Public Health reveals there were 12,231 excess deaths in Illinois in 2021 and 23,143 in 2020.   All-together, the excess deaths during the pandemic equal the entire population of south suburban Calumet City.

The data show 79% of Illinois deaths in the last two years were classified as “Covid deaths.”  As for the remaining 21% of not classified as Covid: Experts say they can likely explained by everything from an undercount of cases early in the pandemic (before testing was widely available) to delayed treatment of other ailments. 

Illinois’ numbers mirror what’s happening in the rest of the United States.  “Approximately 75%–88% of excess deaths were directly associated with COVID-19,” read an April 2021 CDC analysis. “Excluding deaths directly associated with COVID-19, an estimated 63,700–162,400 more persons than expected died from other causes.”

Illinois health officials caution the 35,000 excess death figure will likely increase as the data is further analyzed in the weeks and months to come.