An image circulating on social media erroneously claims that the total number of deaths in the U.S. this year is significantly down compared to previous years. The meme — which implies COVID-19 restrictions weren’t needed — actually uses an incomplete figure for 2020 and makes a flawed comparison.
A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that from late January through Oct. 3, there were an estimated 299,028 excess deaths — meaning deaths higher than what would be expected during that time period, based on previous years. Two-thirds were estimated to be directly attributed to COVID-19.
“The Stats – Why We’ve All Had Our Lives Stolen From Us in 2020,” the meme is headlined. It then lists “US Deaths Per Year” from 2015 through 2019, and compares those figures to a figure for 2020 (as of Nov. 16) to suggest total deaths are actually down this year.
On Instagram, the post was shared with a caption suggesting that the media has misled on the COVID-19 pandemic.
But it’s the meme that’s misleading by using an incomplete figure for 2020 to make its claim, as well as an erroneous number for 2019.
The table, however, only accounted for deaths from Feb. 1 through Nov. 14, so it doesn’t include any deaths that occurred in January 2020 — or, of course, any that will occur in the final weeks of the year.
Also, the figures in the table are provisional — meaning some states may continue to update tallies for up to eight weeks, Bob Anderson, chief of the NCHS’ Mortality Statistics Branch, told us in a phone interview.
The public can see that in action: The same table shows that deaths for the same reporting period (of Feb. 1 through Nov. 14) has since climbed to 2,533,214 (as of Nov. 20).
And that, again, doesn’t include January — when there were an estimated 240,000 deaths, Anderson said. And again, we don’t know how many deaths will occur in the remaining weeks of 2020; Anderson noted that deaths tend to trend upward in the winter.
Yet the meme juxtaposes that incomplete 2020 figure against complete death totals for 2015 (2,712,630) through 2018 (2,839,205), which are accurate and pulled from annual “Mortality in the United States” reports published by NCHS.
Anderson said it was unclear where the meme got its 2019 figure of 2,900,689 deaths. While NCHS has not released a “Mortality in the United States” report for 2019 yet, NCHS’ provisional estimate is 2,852,308.
Whatever the 2020 figure turns out to be, the chart misleadingly downplays the risk of COVID-19 — which so far has killed nearly 1.4 million people worldwide, including more than 250,000 people in the U.S.
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Anderson, Bob. Chief, Mortality Statistics Branch, National Center for Health Statistics, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Phone interview with FactCheck.org. 19 Nov 2020.
“Daily Updates of Totals by Week and State | Provisional Death Counts for Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Archived 16 Nov 2020.
“Daily Updates of Totals by Week and State | Provisional Death Counts for Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed 19 Nov 2020.
Murphy, Sherry L., et al. “Mortality in the United States, 2017.” National Center for Health Statistics, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. November 2018.
Xu, Jiaquan, et al. “Mortality in the United States, 2015.” National Center for Health Statistics, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. December 2016.
Xu, Jiaquan, et al. “Mortality in the United States, 2018.” National Center for Health Statistics, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 2020.