In this post, we look at whether COVID-19 has had an impact on the number of obituaries being reported, as they are a critical source of death data. Note that the charts in this post are interactive.
PBI Research Services , a subsidiary of Longevity Holdings LLC , is a national leader in death auditing and mortality tracking. Their mortality data is captured from a wide range of sources, including obituaries, and cleaned to make it suitable for mortality tracking. Rapid identification of deaths is key to many groups including life and annuity providers, life settlement investors, and pension providers, and obituaries generally offer the fastest mortality data available. Thus, many are wondering whether the flow of reported obituaries has been impacted.
In addition to being useful in mortality tracking, obituaries deliver a rapid signal of all-cause mortality. Of the obituaries in the dataset provided by PBI, 74% of them were captured within one week of death. By two weeks after death, 90% were captured. For comparison, the National Center for Health Statistics Mortality Surveillance System reports aggregate mortality statistics on an ongoing basis, and partial statistics for the fastest reporting states are released two-weeks after the week of death, while some states are considerably slower. Like aggregate obituary data, these statistics are incomplete at first release and get updated as more data comes in.
For our analysis, we focused on a dataset taken from PBI’s obituaries that included funeral homes and crematoriums (“facilities”). The obituaries in this dataset cover an estimated 80% of all deaths nationwide.
We divided deaths into weekly buckets. Historically, the weekly capture rates were very stable with 40% of obituaries for deaths on a given week captured by the end of the same week and 84% captured by the end of the following week. This varies some by state. There have been reports of funeral homes being overwhelmed , yet early indicators suggest at most a modest increase in reporting lag from funeral homes near coronavirus outbreaks.
In New York State, there has been a rapid increase in the number of obituaries reflecting the increased mortality from the COVID-19 pandemic. We measured this by evaluating the number of deaths captured by the end of the week of death (Figure 1) and those captured by the end of the following week (Figure 2). The number of deaths occurring on the week ending April 11th and captured by the end of the week was nearly double from two weeks prior. The timing of this increase closely aligns with the increase in reported deaths in New York State due to COVID-19 (Figure 3).
At present, the increase in obituaries is less than might be expected based on reported COVID-19 deaths. We found 2,500 additional obituaries between March 22nd and April 11th when compared to the week ending March 21st (Figure 2). Based on historical coverage rates, we would expect this to include 2/3rds of all mortality in the state, implying a total of 3,850 excess deaths. For those same weeks, 8,000 COVID-19 deaths were reported.
It is unclear what factors are responsible for this difference. It is unlikely that there is over-reporting of COVID-19 deaths since data through March 28th from the National Center for Health Statistics Mortality Surveillance System, which is taken directly from death certificates, indicates an even greater spike in mortality than reported COVID-19 deaths. Another possibility is obituary reporting lag, although early indicators do not suggest that this is occurring on a large scale. Finally, it may be that fewer people are posting obituaries to funeral homes and crematoriums due to a perceived or actual backlog. We will watch with interest in the coming weeks to see if this gap shrinks with time.
Consistent with the increasing COVID-19 mortality risk with age, the percentage increase in obituaries was much higher for 70+ than for those under 50 (Figure 4). Age was captured on 95% of the obituaries.
The increase in obituaries can be seen nationwide but is most concentrated in the states around New York City (Figure 5). After removing states with insufficient data, we compared the weekly average deaths occurring March 29th through April 11th to deaths during the first three weeks of March. We used obituaries that were captured within one week following the week of death. Since at the time of this writing it has been less than a week since April 11th, we estimated the number of obituaries that we expect to capture by April 18th using historical, state-specific, weekly captured rates. These capture rates have been stable through the first 13 weeks of this year, but if a backlog is causing delayed reporting, the percent increase would likely be higher than estimated in states like New York and New Jersey that have been most impacted by the coronavirus.
There are some limitations to our analysis. First, as previously stated we may be underestimating the increase in mortality if there is a funeral home backlog or if fewer people are posting obituaries with these facilities. Second, we have not adjusted for seasonality. However, the seasonality trend is clear in Figure 2 and is much smaller than the observed increase in obituaries. Third, we are unable to distinguish COVID-19 deaths from other causes. Some of the increased mortality may be driven by economic and social hardships which are secondary effects of the new coronavirus and the nation’s response to it.
We found a clear increase in obituaries nationwide, but concentrated near New York City, and fitting the timeline and age-risk profile of COVID-19. This offers a demonstration of the usefulness of obituaries in tracking all-cause mortality. Due to rapid reporting and streamlined preprocessing, PBI’s obituary data can offer unique insights into the net impact on mortality of COVID-19 and the national response.
 Longevity Holdings is the parent company of PBI Research Services, ITM21st, Fasano and Associates, and Life Insurance Trust Company.