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A health care worker with Family Health Centers of San Diego stands ready to help patients at a coronavirus testing center in Chula Vista. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Our lives have transformed over the last six weeks. Now, data from the month of April is offering insight into just how dramatically San Diego changed.

The novel coronavirus appears to have become one of the top causes of death in the county, likely taking more lives than diseases like stroke and diabetes, according to a Voice of San Diego analysis of federal and local statistics. Meanwhile, traffic accidents reported to the police fell by half as drivers stayed off the roads, and an estimated half of local businesses shut down, cutting work hours by as much as 60 percent

Here’s a closer look at what the numbers tell us.

The Virus Is Now a Top Cause of Death

It’s too early to know how the coronavirus ranks among all causes of death in the county since it takes time for that data to be compiled. But one thing is clear: Even though our death rate is lower than some other major California counties, more people died of COVID-19 here last month than they typically do of almost all other causes.

According to San Diego County statistics, at least 122 people died of coronavirus in April in the county. By comparison, here are the five leading causes of death, on average, in the county for the month of April in the years 2014-2018, according to federal statistics:

  1. Heart disease, 401 deaths
  2. Cancer, 384 deaths
  3. Alzheimer’s disease, 118 deaths
  4. Accidents, 104 deaths
  5. Stroke, 103 deaths

These numbers suggest that coronavirus will end up being among the top five causes of death in the county for the month of April 2020, killing more people than other leading causes of death such as diabetes, suicide, respiratory diseases like emphysema, high blood pressure and Parkinson’s disease. It may even rank third behind the top killers by far – heart disease and cancer.

Eyal Oren, an epidemiologist at San Diego State University, cautioned that it’s difficult to analyze coronavirus statistics for a number of reasons. Some people listed as dying of the virus might have died of another cause if the new disease didn’t exist, he said, and some people with conditions other than coronavirus may be dying because they’re afraid to go to the hospital for care until it’s too late.

Still, he said, the numbers reveal that the virus has “an impact, and that’s important for people to understand, especially when they feel like it’s time to go back to work and normal life.”

The total coronavirus death rate in San Diego County so far is neither high nor low compared to other populous counties in the state.

San Diego County’s death rate is five per 100,000 people, according to The New York Times. That’s well below the county with the highest death rate, Los Angeles, at 12 per 100,000 people, and also below Riverside, Santa Clara and San Bernardino counties.

Other counties like Alameda, San Francisco, Contra Costa and Sacramento, however, have lower death rates. And Orange County, whose population is similar to San Diego County, has a death rate of just two per 100,000 people.

Our Businesses Are Shutting Down Big-Time

Many local workplaces are shut down, taking employees off the job. But the data suggests the impact isn’t as severe here as it could be if the pandemic worsens and reaches New York City levels.

Compared with early March, about half of San Diego County businesses were shut down on weekdays in late March and April, and employees worked 55-60 percent fewer hours than usual, according to Homebase, a company that provides employee scheduling services to businesses.

How does San Diego stack up compared with other cities? We’re in the middle, again reflecting our status as neither a pandemic hot spot nor a quiet zone.

Not surprisingly, San Diegans are working more than people in New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S. According to Homebase, about 60 percent of businesses were shut in the Big Apple on weekdays in April, and employees worked about 70 percent fewer hours.

Oklahoma City is bustling in comparison, with only about a third of businesses shut down.

Traffic Collisions Are Vanishing as We Drive Less

The San Diego Open Data Portal confirms what we see whenever we head out for a spin: We’re driving a whole lot less than usual, with fewer places to go that are open and fewer jobs to commute to.

For the first two weeks of April, San Diego Police reported fewer than 100 traffic collisions, down by about half compared with late February, on city streets. It’s not a surprising dip considering that vehicle miles traveled in San Diego from March 28-April 3 were 44 percent of normal, according to the transportation data company Inrix.

Overall, “we have seen a decrease in calls for service to the Police Department,” said SDPD spokesman Shawn Takeuchi. But “we have not seen any significant change in any certain type of crime,” he said.

There’s been a sharp statewide decline in traffic collisions and fatalities too, with both falling by an estimated 50 percent in the early days of the pandemic shutdown, according to a University of California, Davis study. But even this silver lining is clouded by unhappy consequences: Fewer people dying in accidents means fewer available organs for patients who need transplants. “Normally, in April, organ procurement organizations see a surge in donations related to outdoor, spring break-related activities and travel,” KQED reported. “But not this year.”

Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at

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