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Column: The COVID perspective we should have had
Cindi Ross Scoppe
Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe - COVID
Most South Carolinians die from heart disease or cancer -- at least to date. COVID could overtake both this year. (Gerald Herbert/AP via the P&C)
The digital highway sign I drove under on the interstate last Wednesday night said 1,002 people had died so far this year on S.C. roads, and warned me not to text and drive. It was good advice.

Better advice would be for the legislature to pass a serious DUI law, to combat the biggest driver of highway deaths.

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that a record 100,300 Americans died of drug overdoses from May 2020 to April of this year. The agency estimated that 1,907 South Carolinians had died during that period.

That’s 45 percent more South Carolinians than the previous year -- an increase public health officials believe was driven here and nationally by more powerful street drugs such as fentanyl as well as the isolation, economic distress and hopelessness of COVID-19.

Also last month, the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) reported that 552 South Carolinians were murdered last year, up from 452 in 2019, likely in at least part because of all the hysterical rage infecting our society that’s been turbocharged by the pandemic.

Most of those murder victims died from gunshot wounds, although the CDC says most gunshot deaths aren’t murders: 55 percent of the 1,012 South Carolinians who were shot to death in 2019 took their own lives.

This year’s traffic deaths are up from 992 at the same time last year, which isn’t particularly surprising. But last year’s number, which everybody thought was going to be down for the same reason that overdoses were up, was actually up from 923 in 2019.

Those traffic deaths are just one component of what the CDC calls “accidental deaths,” which in 2019 stood at 3,336, making accidents of all sorts the third biggest killer in South Carolina.

Of course, that was before COVID. Once the numbers are crunched, accidental deaths will drop to fourth for 2020 and in 2021, in South Carolina and likely across the country. If we’re lucky, COVID won’t break the top five in future years.

If we’re lucky, too, COVID will finish this year as South Carolina’s third leading cause of death -- behind heart disease and cancer. If we’re not so lucky -- and with infections climbing again, there’s still plenty of time for us to not be so lucky -- it’ll jump to second, or even first. That’s how big it has become.

The last time I went looking for mortality numbers, it was to contrast the risk of dying in a traffic accident as opposed to dying from a terrorist attack, or a plane crash, or any of a number of other exotic causes whose risk we overestimate. This time, it was out of frustration over the lack of context that newspapers and TV and social media and even government websites provide alongside COVID numbers. I wasn’t sure what I would find, but I had a feeling that COVID deaths would rank a lot higher than people who think we’re being too cautious believe, and a lot lower than people who think we aren’t being nearly cautious enough believe. I was right.

Whichever group you fall into -- or if, like me, you’re in that a-pox-on-all-your-extremes camp -- it’s important to be aware of the numbers, because how we perceive various risks plays a huge role in what we’re willing to do to reduce them for society, and to protect ourselves and our loved ones as individuals.

So here’s how people die in South Carolina. Except for COVID, traffic deaths and murders, the numbers are from the CDC and from 2019:

• Heart disease, 10,579.

• Cancer, 10,487.

• COVID, zero in 2019, 5,291 last year and 8,978 so far this year. If we can keep the death numbers as low as they were in November, we’ll end the year with 9,458 deaths. Which we should all hope for, even though the trend isn’t looking good.

• Accidents, 3,336, including 985 traffic deaths.

• Chronic lower respiratory disease, 2,899.

• Stroke, 2,703.

• Alzheimer’s disease, 2,323.

• Diabetes, 1,610.

• Drug overdose, 1,131.

• Firearm deaths, 1,012. (There’s a lot of overlap here with the 452 murders.)

• Kidney disease, 1,010.

• Sepsis, 896.

• Flu, 686.

The CDC numbers are “age-adjusted,” which I find annoying, but which makes it easier to compare how well states are doing from year to year and from state to state. States with younger populations are going to have, for instance, more gun deaths and traffic deaths than states with older populations, which will have more heart disease and cancer deaths, even if they do everything right. Even with the adjustments, the numbers are ballpark.

I realize that some people believe the COVID numbers are fabricated, so: South Carolina divides its COVID numbers into two components -- deaths confirmed by testing, and “probable” deaths, which constitute only 13.5 percent of the total.

If you don’t trust what doctors say about how people died, subtract out 13.5 percent. Subtract out 20 percent if you want, and that’s still way more deaths than we have from the flu, or guns, or drug overdoses or wrecks or all accidents -- in fact from everything that kills South Carolinians except heart disease and cancer.

If you don’t believe the other 86.5 percent of the deaths actually came from COVID, there’s nothing I can say to convince you they did. Or that we landed men on the moon back when I was in elementary school. Everybody else can hold onto these numbers for that missing perspective.

(Cindy Ross Scoppe is an editorial writer for the Post and Courier in Charleston. Email her at For daily coverage of the Lowcountry, visit