COVID-19 death numbers: Are they being skewed?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has many people shaking their heads and wondering if the CDC is skewing COVID-19 death numbers.

Exactly how many people have died from COVID-19 in the United States?

The numbers appear confusing, especially since some recent reports indicate that the CDC adjusted its numbers from more than 67,000 deaths from the virus to more than 38,000 deaths nationwide. So, what’s really going on?

Let’s have a look at the most recent stats and how they may be causing confusion.

On its official website, the CDC indicated that as of May 4, total deaths from COVID-19 across the country stand at 67,456, and it’s this number that is being questioned. 

Provisional numbers

The CDC’s provisional death count numbers (for the week ending May 2) look like this:

  • Deaths from COVID-19,  38, 576;
  • Deaths from all causes, 739,600;
  • Deaths from pneumonia, 66,094;
  • Deaths with pneumonia and COVID-19, 17,122;
  • Deaths from influenza, 5,886;
  • Deaths with pneumonia, influenza or COVID-19, 92,615.

The CDC says provisional death counts deliver the most comprehensive picture of lives lost to COVID-19.

“These estimates are based on death certificates, which are the most reliable source of data and contain information not available anywhere else, including comorbid conditions, race and ethnicity, and place of death,” the CDC states.

Lag time for data

Provisional data is constantly changing and the CDC says that this data could be lagging by as much as two weeks.

On its provisional death counts page, the CDC says, “The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) uses incoming date from death certificates to produce provisional COVID-19 death counts …

“When COVID-19 is reported as a cause of death — or when it is listed as a ‘probable’ or ‘presumed’ cause — the death is coded as U07.1 This can include cases with or without laboratory confirmation.”

Why is there such a large discrepancy between what the CDC says are provisional death numbers and what it lists as actual COVID-19 deaths? They chalk it up to that one to two-week lag time in data and indicate that provisional data is incomplete.

Death certificates take time

“Provisional death counts may not match counts from other sources, such as media reports or numbers from county health departments,” the CDC site says. “Our counts often track one to two weeks behind other data for a number of reasons: Death certificates take time to be completed.

“There are many steps involved in completing and submitting a death certificate. Waiting for test results can create additional delays.”

In reality, the numbers the CDC acknowledges are weeks behind the actual current mortality number.

Are the numbers political?

It has been suggested that death numbers are being inflated as a political weapon against the Trump administration. However, Deborah Birx, a leading medical expert on the White House coronavirus task force, has debunked that notion.

“If someone dies with COVID-19, we are counting that as a COVID-19 death,” Birx said at a recent press briefing, adding people who die from COVID-19 may indeed have an underlying condition. “But that underlying condition did not cause their acute death when it’s related to a covid infection. In fact, it’s the opposite.”

President Trump also puts stock in the CDC numbers, calling them “very, very accurate.”

“I can only say what we’re doing and we’re reporting very accurately,” the president added.

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