Because New York was hit with the coronavirus early, before testing was widely available, its official count of infections – at just over 400,000 – vastly understates the scale of its outbreak.

The state’s death toll, which is relatively well-documented, can be used to sketch a fuller picture of the pandemic’s course in New York – and provide better perspective on the current outbreaks in the South and West.

Research indicates that the mortality rate among people who contract COVID-19 is approximately 1 percent or less. This suggests that the total number of infected New Yorkers would be about 100 times the number of deaths, or 3.2 million, or about eight times higher than the Health Department’s tally of known cases.


This is an installment in a special series of #NYCoronavirus chronicles by Empire Center analysts, focused on New York’s state and local policy response to the coronavirus pandemic.


Among patients who die from the disease, the median time from infection to death ranges from 18 to 21 days. With this in mind, death counts suggest that the coronavirus started spreading in New York by late February and peaked in late March.

To be clear, these are debatable assumptions – and the results obtained are at best rough estimates that are useful for illustration purposes only.

The first chart below shows estimated total infection curves, extrapolated backward from death counts, for New York and Florida.

This illustration makes several things clear:

  1. By March 1, when the state recorded its first case of coronavirus, thousands of other New Yorkers were likely already infected.
  2. By mid-March, when the state recorded its first known coronavirus deaths, the outbreak was spreading rapidly, infecting people at a rate of perhaps 60,000 people per day and climbing fast.
  3. The outbreak appears to have peaked in late March, right around the time that social distancing measures, both state-mandated and voluntary, were taking effect – an indication that these precautions helped stem the pandemic.
  4. Because New York’s death count peaked at almost 1,000 per day, the state’s infection rate likely peaked at almost 100,000 per day.
  5. In Florida, the number of confirmed cases has risen above the number of inferred cases from three weeks earlier – a clear sign that the surge is real, and not just a byproduct of increased testing.
  6. Comparing states’ confirmed infection rates currently to what New York reported back in early April is misleading, because New York was testing a much smaller fraction of its infected residents.

The second chart of national data tells a similar story: The current surge in the South and West has not yet come close to the scale of what happened to the Northeast in March and April. However, it appears to be the beginning of a second wave which, in the absence of effective containment measures, could become just as deadly as the first.

Source: New York Times data, author calculations
Source: New York Times data, author calculations

About the Author

Bill Hammond

As the Empire Center’s senior fellow for health policy, Bill Hammond tracks fast-moving developments in New York’s massive health care industry, with a focus on how decisions made in Albany and Washington affect the well-being of patients, providers, taxpayers and the state’s economy.

Read more by Bill Hammond

You may also like

New York Has Widened Its Lead in Per-Capita Spending on Medicaid

New York's per-capita Medicaid spending soared to more than double the nationwide rate in 2018, widening its gap with the other 49 states. Read More

New York’s Medicaid Enrollment Surges to an All-Time High

New York's Medicaid program is growing at its fastest rate in six years, with a quarter-million additional enrollees landing in the safety-net health plan during the first three months of the coronavirus pandemic.  Read More

New York’s Health Premiums Remain Among the Highest in the U.S.

The average cost of New Yorkers' health benefits increased by less than the national average in 2019 but remained among the highest in the U.S., according to recently published federal data. Read More

New York’s Medicaid Roller Coaster Takes an Unusual Turn

The state's Medicaid spending was significantly lower than projected in the first quarter, but that's not necessarily a positive sign for state finances. Read More

Cuomo Administration Ducks Important Questions on Nursing Homes

A new report from the state Health Department tries to deflect blame for thousands of coronavirus deaths in the state's nursing homes—but undermines its own case by withholding data and engaging in tendentious analysis. Read More

New Data Confirm New York State’s Q1 Economic Plunge

New York's economy ended the first quarter of this year in virtual free fall, the latest federal data show. Read More

Nursing Home Vacancy Rate Soars, Hinting at a Higher Coronavirus Toll

The vacancy rate in New York's nursing homes has more than doubled since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, suggesting that the death toll among residents may be thousands higher than officially reported. Read More

Unsure of COVID Impact, NY Insurers Roll Dice on Rate Hikes

The health insurance industry's rate applications for 2021, , reveal deep uncertainty about the long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic on medical costs. Some companies anticip Read More

Subscribe

Sign up to receive updates about Empire Center research, news and events in your email.

CONTACT INFORMATION

Empire Center for Public Policy
30 South Pearl St.
Suite 1210
Albany, NY 12207

Phone: 518-434-3100
Fax: 518-434-3130
E-Mail: info@empirecenter.org

About

The Empire Center is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank located in Albany, New York. Our mission is to make New York a better place to live and work by promoting public policy reforms grounded in free-market principles, personal responsibility, and the ideals of effective and accountable government.