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  • Megan Johanson

Putting COVID Deaths Into Perspective

A tricky part about data, especially data that is constantly being reported like COVID-19 cases and deaths, is that it feels less real the more we hear it. We can get desensitized to even the most heartbreaking statistics, especially if you have not been personally affected. Sometimes the numbers get so big it's hard to imagine the people that are actually affected.

Humanizing the COVID-19 Death Data

In mid-December I made a Facebook post drawing a comparison between the number of people in the United States that had died from COVID-19 and the populations of cities in South Dakota, where I'm from.

You may be thinking 'South Dakota has a small population,' and it's true. But for people in South Dakota or the surrounding areas, they know how big the bigger cities feel. I wanted to connect the almost 300,000 deaths from COVID-19 to something that Midwesterners could relate to - cities they've visited.

My post was simple text, aimed humanizing the data and relating it to what South Dakotans know.

Screenshot of a Facebook post comparing the COVID deaths in the US to the three largest South Dakota cities.

I know how it feels to stand in Sioux Falls, Rapid City, and Aberdeen, so to know that it's as if those three cities were completely empty really resonated with me. I hoped it would resonate with my Midwestern family and friends as well.

Updating the Data Comparison

Now, about a month later, the United States has passed more than 410,000 COVID-19 deaths. I decided to update my comparison and add some visuals to hopefully tell an even more compelling data story and help people in South Dakota understand the magnitude of the death count.

First, I pulled population data for South Dakota cities. I used the 2020 Population column to have the most recent data available.

A table of the five most populous cities in South Dakota.

Edit on 1/25/2021: I added together the 2020 Population of each city in South Dakota to get a total population for the state, which I used in the visualizations below. However, the same website reports South Dakota's population as 892,631 in a table ranking the states' populations. It is unclear why there is a discrepancy in the numbers.

Next, I pulled current COVID-19 data from for the United States. According to that resource, we currently have 411,434 deaths from COVID-19. Below is the information available on January 19, 2021.

A screenshot of today's data on USA COVID cases and deaths.

Using these two sources, and knowing what the death count was in mid-December because of my post, I created a set of parallel pie charts.

One for December, visualizing the data behind my original Facebook post:

A pie chart of the population of South Dakota where 43% of the pie represents the number of Americans killed by COVID as of December.

One for January:

A pie chart of the population of South Dakota where 60% of the pie represents the number of Americans killed by COVID as of January.

Looking Ahead

As you can see, COVID-19 deaths now equal the population of South Dakota's 10 largest cities. In about 30 days COVID-19 deaths have increased the equivalent of 17% of South Dakota's population.

Which leads me to a very sad question: How long until the COVID-19 deaths are equal to the entire population of South Dakota? Or in other words, how long until the entire pie chart is red?

To calculate this, I divided the "remaining population" in South Dakota (272,597 people) by the current number of daily deaths according to (2,716). Of course, this daily death count could go down if vaccines are distributed widely and reduce cases, but as of now the daily death rate is increasing, so I just stuck with today's count.

Doing this calculation reveals that COVID-19 deaths might equal the entire population of South Dakota in:

An image that reads 100 days.

Using the all-knowing Google search, I found out that 100 days from now (January 19th) is April 29th.

I really hope this projection is wrong and that enough vaccines will be distributed to drastically reduce the daily death rate. For now the best we can do is to be aware of the safety precautions we can take to protect ourselves, our families, and our community, and remember that each number in that 411,434 is a real person.

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