GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — So far this year, COVID-19 has caused four times more deaths than flu and pneumonia.

According to state data, COVID-19 had killed 5,872 people through October compared to 1,529 deaths from flu and pneumonia.

2020 year to date:

  • COVID-19: 5,872
  • Flu/pneumonia: 1,529

The number of deaths is lower than current counts because the comparison data is from October, and there’s also a seven-day lag time in reporting.

Additionally, the statistical table we consulted only counted deaths as COVID-19 if the virus was listed as a primary cause.

The state reports deaths as COVID-19 if the virus was a primary cause or significant contributing factor.

The 1,529 flu and pneumonia deaths so far this year are not out of line with previous years.

In all of 2019, flu and pneumonia killed 1,641 people compared to 1,871 in 2018 and 1,793 in 2017.

Flu/pneumonia deaths:

  • 2020 so far: 1,529
  • 2019 total: 1,641
  • 2018 total: 1,871
  • 2017 total: 1,793

While federal health agencies generally report flu and pneumonia together, MDHHS also tracks flu-only deaths.

Flu-only deaths:

  • 2020 so far: 280
  • 2019 total: 185
  • 2018 total: 346

In 2020 so far, state records show there’ve been 280 flu deaths compared to 185 for all of 2019 and 346 for 2018.

Jeff Duncan, head of Vital Records and Health Statistics for MDHHS, cautioned against comparing flu and pneumonia deaths year to year since the 2020 flu season is not over.

“Flu season starts in the fall and ends in the spring. We haven’t experienced all of 2020’s flu deaths yet,” Duncan said in an interview with Target 8 over Zoom.

He also noted deaths from flu and pneumonia, which usually rank between the seventh and ninth leading death causes in Michigan, vary year to year depending on the strain’s severity and vaccine’s effectiveness.


As of Wednesdsay, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reported 7,766 COVID-19-related deaths.

Meanwhile, based on October data, COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in the state, behind cancer and heart disease.

In 2020 through the end of October, heart disease had killed 20,678 people compared to 7,477 cancer deaths, 5,872 COVID-19 deaths, 4,556 COPD deaths and 4,500 stroke deaths.

Leading natural death causes 2020 through October:

  1. Heart Disease: 20,678
  2. Cancer: 7,477
  3. COVID-19: 5,872
  4. COPD: 4,556
  5. Stroke: 4,500

However, COVID-19 is gaining fast, and the University of Michigan recently reported the virus has actually surpassed cancer.

“From March to present, the second leading cause of death in Michigan was COVID-19, second only to heart disease,” said Joseph Eisenberg, professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology at University of Michigan.


Eisenberg said the virus’s position as second leading death cause makes clear the severity of the crisis.

He also pointed to the higher-than-expected number of deaths in 2020.

According to provisional data from MDHHS, total deaths from all causes in Michigan are 13% higher than expected based on the prior three years’ average.

During one week in mid-April, at the virus’s spring peak, there were 74% more deaths than expected based on the same week in previous years.

The lowest percentage increase since COVID-19 hit came in mid-June when deaths were only three percent higher than expected.

Statistics also show that COVID-19 did not account for all of the excess deaths.

“There’s a fair number of researchers who are actually looking at this in terms of trying to understand what some of these explanatory reasons might be,” said Sarah Lyon-Callo, director of the state’s Bureau of Epidemiology and Population Health.

“But a couple things to think about: We went through a period of time in spring where we had to pull back a lot of preventive services,” Lyon-Callo explained.

“There’s a concern that perhaps people are dying of other conditions due to lack of timely care for other kinds of conditions … We’re also concerned we did not have enough testing in spring, and it could be that some people who died from other causes of disease also had COVID-19, but it wasn’t evident or visible.”

Lyon-Callo also wonders if people who needed to go to the hospital avoided doing so because they feared COVID-19.

“We’re still seeing that people’s utilization of health care is a little bit lower than it was,” said Lyon-Callo.


Jeannie Davis, who lost her mom to COVID-19, is urging others to take the precautions aimed at preventing COVID-19’s spread.

“It’s no joke,” said Davis tearfully in a Zoom interview with Target 8. “Except for COVID, I believe my mom would still be here with us.”

Davis’ mom, Beverly Hammond, a Rockford-area native, died on Election Day, Nov. 3.

She’d been diagnosed with COVID-19 two weeks earlier.

Hammond, 86, was in a nursing home and had some dementia and reduced lung capacity.

Still, Davis knows it was COVID-19 that stole what precious time her mom had left.

“She had so much family still to live for,” Davis said.

Davis made sure her mom heard the voices of family in her last days, even if only through a webcam.

“We were telling her what an amazing mom she was. How blessed we were that she was our mom, and that she had done so many amazing things in her life,” Davis recalled.

Hammond was a pastor’s wife and consummate hostess who played church piano and worked hard her whole life caring for others.

“She canned, froze, baked and did all of the amazing things a mom does. I had the best mom,” Davis said.

Davis said Hammond, a woman of great faith, was excited to rejoin her husband but sad to leave her children behind.

The Reverend Harvey Hammond died eight years ago.

An undated courtesy photo of Harvey and Beverly Hammond.


Epidemiologists say it’s more important than ever that people are vigilant about masking up, social distancing and washing hands frequently and thoroughly.

“I would say this is a concerning time that we’re entering,” Eisenberg. “We need to be vigilant in adhering to the public health guidelines that we know work.”

All three experts we consulted for this story — Eisenberg, Lyon-Callo and Duncan — said they understand why people find COVID-19 statistics confusing.

They also welcomed the chance to educate the public about their work, including how cause of death is decided.

“Determining cause of death is a complicated question ultimately,” Eisenberg explained.

“So, if you die because you were infected with COVID, even if you die of pneumonia, for instance, COVID was still the cause of death. But you could also say you died of pneumonia. However, if you hadn’t gotten COVID, you wouldn’t have died.”

The experts also pointed out that death certificates are filled out by individual doctors, who sometimes come to different conclusions.

“A physician is filling out the death certificate with their information about what happened to the person based on their own clinical judgment,” Lyon-Callo said.

MDHHS describes the method for counting deaths as COVID-19 fatalities if they meet one or more of the following conditions:

  • Have been identified as a confirmed case and classified as deceased as a result of a case investigation in the Michigan Disease Surveillance System. (MDSS is the database used by state and local health agencies to monitor reportable diseases like COVID-19)
  • Have been identified as a confirmed case in MDSS and have a death certificate with COVID-19 listed as a cause
  • Have been identified as a confirmed case in MDSS, died within 30 days of onset of COVID-19 infection and have a death certificate which classifies their manner of death as “natural”