The Matanuska-Susitna Borough had more deaths last year than would be expected in a normal year.

That’s true for many communities in the United States — because of the pandemic. But the Mat-Su Borough stands out from the rest of the country in one way. A recently published analysis found that the borough had the country’s lowest number of reported COVID-19 deaths compared to the number of people who died in the borough beyond what would normally be expected. 

A blue building with a water tower that says 'palmer'
Palmer Alaska June 6, 2020. The Mat-Su borough, which Palmer is a part of, had the country’s lowest number of reported COVID-19 deaths compared to the number of people who died in the borough beyond what would normally be expected.  (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

The analysis looked at how many deaths in each county — or in Alaska, each borough — were recorded as being caused by COVID-19 last year. The authors then compared that number to another statistic, known as “excess deaths”: the deaths each county had last year from all causes above the number expected in a normal year. 

They wanted to know if the official number of pandemic deaths is accurate.

The authors found the Mat-Su Borough trailed the rest of the country in the ratio between recorded COVID-19 deaths and excess deaths in 2020. 

Nationally, this kind of gap is a challenge for public health experts who are trying to understand how many people truly died from the disease. The authors didn’t reach conclusions on why there are big gaps in individual counties.

But the authors said one cause could be that COVID-19 isn’t being recorded as the cause of death on death certificates for people who died from the disease. 

The analysis was published in the journal PLOS Medicine in May. The authors concluded direct COVID-19 death counts in the U.S. substantially underestimated the deaths attributed to the pandemic, by roughly 17%.

They wrote that there are several potential causes, including lower rates of COVID-19 testing in some counties, reduced access to health care, and regional differences in diagnosis and political attitudes. The data used in the analysis was provisional, and noted some data was delayed.

The authors also wrote some deaths, like drug overdoses, may be indirectly related to the pandemic.

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