The claim: CDC admitted to adding flu and pneumonia deaths to COVID-19 death count, dropping the death count from 54,000 to 43,000

A Facebook post claims the Centers for Disease Control admitted to adding flu and pneumonia deaths to the COVID-19 death count, dropping the number from 54,000 to 43,000.

The post echoes many of a similar sentiment, that the CDC “corrected” or “adjusted” the number of COVID-19 deaths to a lower number, fueling conspiracy theories that the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax.

This notion was amplified when conservative filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza tweeted May 2: “Just like that, CDC reduces its #Coronavirus death count to 37,000. That’s nearly HALF the total they were peddling. Did 30,000 people spring back to life like Lazarus? No, this seems a ‘gaffe’—defined as a case of the CDC accidentally telling the truth.” The post received more than 20,000 retweets.

USA TODAY reached out to the user who made the Facebook post and to D’Souza but did not receive a response.

Despite the misinformation, archived records of the CDC’s two COVID-19 death counts show that deaths steadily increased over time and did not reflect a reduction of 11,000 in the number of deaths. 

Provisional deaths versus confirmed and probable deaths

As of April 14, 2020, the CDC regularly updates two measurements of COVID-19 deaths: provisional deaths (deaths verified by death certificates) and confirmed and probable cases (deaths based on case reports that are believed to have been caused by COVID-19).

The number of provisional deaths is based on data from the National Vital Statistics System, the data system the National Center for Health Statistics uses, which records information from death certificates. This number lags behind the number of confirmed and probable cases because, according to the CDC’s website, “it can take several weeks for death records to be submitted to (NCHS), processed, coded, and tabulated. Therefore, the data shown on this page may be incomplete, and will likely not include all deaths that occurred during a given time period, especially for the more recent time periods.”

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This lengthier reporting process means provisional deaths lag about 1 week to 2 weeks behind other counts. The discrepancy has been a source of apparent confusion in relation to some of the posts claiming the CDC corrected or adjusted its count.

For example, when a Twitter user responded to D’Souza’s tweet trying to correct him with a screenshot of the number of confirmed and probable cases, D’Souza responded with a screenshot of the number of provisional deaths, saying, “See for yourself,” as if the two numbers were the same calculation.

Uncertain counts

Experts acknowledge there has been widespread underreporting of COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic, so any numbers claimed to be the death toll do not present the full picture.

Fact check: Is US coronavirus death toll inflated? Experts agree it’s likely the opposite

The New York Times reported in April that although the extent of the problem is not clear, a lack of testing, varying requirements for testing, inconsistent protocols for reporting deaths at the local and state level and people dying before being tested means many COVID-19 deaths were never counted.

Fact check: Coronavirus’s annual death toll can’t yet be calculated, compared

NPR reported in May that this issue has not improved. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a Senate hearing that month the death count is “almost certainly” is higher.

COVID-19 death counts have increased, not decreased

Despite incomplete death counts, archived versions of both of the CDC’s coronavirus death counts — provisional, and confirmed and probable — have continued to increase since the virus started spreading. There have been no instances of either death count being significantly reduced, as claimed in the Facebook post.

Fact check: CDC’s estimates COVID-19 death rate around 0.26%, doesn’t confirm it

CDC’s reporting on pneumonia- or influenza-related COVID-19 deaths

The Facebook user claimed the CDC admitted “adding pneumonia and flu with COVID deaths.” This is not true, as Bob Anderson, NCHS chief of mortality statistics,   confirmed to AFP Fact Check. 

Fact check: CDC has not stopped reporting flu deaths, and this season’s numbers are typical

But the CDC over time has changed the extent and format in which it publicly displays death statistics relating to COVID-19 and the other illnesses, which may have contributed to some confusion.

According to archived web pages, the CDC has displayed “deaths with pneumonia and COVID-19” next to the count of all provisional COVID-19 deaths since April 3. On April 24, CDC added a column for deaths with pneumonia, influenza or COVID-19 in addition to the total of COVID-19 deaths.

According to AFP Fact Check, Anderson explained counts in “the ‘All Deaths involving COVID-19’ column only refer to people who died from the disease, not merely with the disease.”

The CDC implemented June 11 its current format that reports COVID-19, pneumonia and influenza-related deaths. 

The webpage with provisional deaths now includes columns for:

“Deaths involving Pneumonia, with or without COVID-19, excluding Influenza deaths.”

“Deaths involving COVID-19 and Pneumonia, excluding Influenza.” 

“All deaths involving Influenza, with or without COVID-19 or pneumonia” or including COVID-19 or pneumonia.

“Deaths involving Pneumonia, Influenza or COVID-19.”

The variations of pneumonia and influenza deaths are reported alongside COVID-19 deaths because the illnesses exhibit similar symptoms. Considering all three tallies can provide a better understanding of the extent of COVID-19 cases that may have gone undiagnosed. 

“Deaths due to COVID-19 may be misclassified as pneumonia or influenza deaths in the absence of positive test results, and pneumonia or influenza may appear on death certificates as a comorbid (when a person has two diseases at once) condition,” the CDC’s website reads. “Additionally, COVID-19 symptoms can be similar to influenza-like illness, thus deaths may be misclassified as influenza.”

Despite these new variations of the provisional death count, the total provisional death count of deaths involving COVID-19 was not significantly reduced. The same goes for confirmed and probable deaths, the number of which continued to increase.

Our ruling: False

Although it’s unclear where the Facebook user found the numbers 54,000 or 43,000, the CDC did not lower the death count, nor did it admit to adding influenza and pneumonia to it COVID-19 death count. The user may have confused the CDC’s additional reporting of influenza and pneumonia-related deaths or the fact that the CDC reports two different counts for COVID-19 deaths. We rate this claim FALSE because it is not supported by our research.

Our fact-check sources:

Dinesh D’Souza tweet, May 2, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Cases in the U.S.

New York Times, “Trump Suggests Virus Death Count Is Inflated. Most Experts Doubt It,” May 22, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Daily Updates of Totals by Week and State

New York Times, “Official Counts Understate the U.S. Coronavirus Death Toll,” April 7, 2020

NPR, “Fauci Says U.S. Death Toll Is Likely Higher. Other COVID-19 Stats Need Adjusting, Too,” May 13, 2020

Wayback Machine, “Daily Updates of Totals by Week and State”

Wayback Machine, “Cases in the U.S.”

AFP Fact Check, “CDC does not add flu and pneumonia deaths to COVID-19 toll,” June 23, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Technical Notes

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Confusion about CDC’s COVID-19 death count

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