Background Efforts to track the severity and public health impact of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, in the US have been hampered by testing issues, reporting lags, and inconsistency between states. Evaluating unexplained increases in deaths attributed to broad outcomes, such as pneumonia and influenza (P&I) or all causes, can provide a more complete and consistent picture of the burden caused by COVID-19. Methods We evaluated increases in the occurrence of deaths due to P&I above a seasonal baseline (adjusted for influenza activity) or due to any cause across the United States in February and March 2020. These estimates are compared with reported deaths due to COVID-19 and with testing data. Results There were notable increases in the rate of death due to P&I in February and March 2020. In a number of states, these deaths pre-dated increases in COVID-19 testing rates and were not counted in official records as related to COVID-19. There was substantial variability between states in the discrepancy between reported rates of death due to COVID-19 and the estimated burden of excess deaths due to P&I. The increase in all-cause deaths in New York and New Jersey is 1.5-3 times higher than the official tally of COVID-19 confirmed deaths or the estimated excess death due to P&I. Conclusions Excess P&I deaths provide a conservative estimate of COVID-19 burden and indicate that COVID-19-related deaths are missed in locations with inadequate testing or intense pandemic activity.