TRENTON – New Jersey no longer has the nation’s highest COVID-19 cumulative death rate, an unfortunate distinction the state held for over a year before recently being surpassed by Mississippi.

New Jersey yielded that ranking to Mississippi on Sept. 5. And if recent trends continue, the COVID death rate in Louisiana will also pass New Jersey’s within about a week.

New Jersey’s COVID deaths spiked in the early months of the pandemic – at its worst exceeding 270 a day in late April and early May of 2020, compared with an average of 16 currently.

Mississippi peaked last winter, its average topping out around 50 deaths a day, but is again building toward another peak. It is currently registering twice as many deaths as New Jersey despite having one-third the population.

Officially, New Jersey held the nation’s worst COVID death rate for 437 days, since passing New York on June 25, 2020. In actuality it may have ranked highest for longer than that because on that date, the state added more than 1,800 past probable deaths to its count that had happened earlier.

A database maintained by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that includes the total number of deaths for every 100,000 residents suggest Mississippi surpassed New Jersey Sept. 14, but that isn’t accurate.

The CDC rates, and those of most databases tracking coronavirus statistics, haven’t been updated to reflect 2020 Census population counts but rather still use 2019 population estimates.

For New Jersey, that means the database calculates rates using a population of 8.88 million, not the 9.23 million that were counted in the 2020 Census. That’s a difference of nearly 407,000, about 4.6%, as the estimate for New Jersey was the most inaccurate in the country.

For Mississippi, the difference is smaller but happens in the opposite direction. The 2020 Census count was about 15,000 people smaller than the 2019 estimate, or 0.5%.

Using the outdated 2019 estimates, it appears that one of every 325 people in Mississippi and one of every 327 people in New Jersey has died of COVID, as of the Sept. 15 data update. Put another way, that calculates to 305.4 deaths per 100,000 residents in New Jersey and 307.9 per 100,000 in Mississippi.

But using the 2020 Census counts, it is one of every 323 people in Mississippi, or 309.5 deaths per 100,000, and one of every 342 people in New Jersey, or 292 per 100,000.

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The rates presented on the state Department of Health’s COVID dashboard use population counts from the 2010 Census – even more out of date than 2019 estimates, now more than 11 years old, using a state population of 8.79 million.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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