Claims on social media have been spreading the falsehood that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention significantly lowered the COVID-19 death toll. There has been no such reduction. These claims confuse two different measures of the number of deaths.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regularly updates two different lists that track deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. One list, referred to as “provisional deaths,” counts death certificates. The other list counts confirmed and probable cases.
The list that counts death certificates shows a lower number partly because official documentation takes days or weeks to produce. So that number lags behind other methods of counting the death toll.
For example, one Facebook post said, “The CDC has adjusted their COVID19 deaths from 64,000 to 37,000. What do you think about that? Still scared? Angry yet?” It generated this response from a reader: “WHAT A DAMM HOAX!!! ALL OF IT!”
But it’s not true.
The claim received widespread attention after it was highlighted by the popular right-wing personality Dinesh D’Souza. On May 2, he tweeted: “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.”
A few minutes after he posted the tweet, another user responded with a screenshot showing 62,406 deaths on the CDC’s list of confirmed and probable cases. D’Souza replied with a screenshot of the CDC’s other list, counting death certificates, that showed 37,308 deaths. He wrote, “See for yourself.”
But, as we said, those two lists are different. The first one shows the number of deaths from COVID-19 based on information collected from states and territories reporting both confirmed and probable cases. The second one shows the number of death certificates that list COVID-19 as the cause of death.
As the CDC explained, the count based on death certificates has a one- to two-week lag behind the numbers shown in lists that use other methods for counting because:
- “Death certificates take time to be completed.”
- “Waiting for test results can create additional delays.”
- “It takes extra time to code COVID-19 deaths. While 80% of deaths are electronically processed and coded by NCHS [the National Center for Health Statistics] within minutes, most deaths from COVID-19 must be coded manually, which takes an average of 7 days.”
Archived versions of the two lists confirm that there has been no decrease in the death toll total and that the number shown in the list counting death certificates does, indeed, lag the other by about two weeks. For example, as of April 20, the list showing confirmed and probable cases put the death toll at 39,083. Two weeks later, on May 4, the list showing the number of death certificates put the toll at 38,576.
Still, the bogus claim continues to circulate, including in the form of a screenshot meme that was created from the headline on the conservative website waynedupree.com, which has since issued a correction.
And, on May 4, a conservative radio show repeated the claim in a story that has garnered more than 100,000 likes, shares, and comments on Facebook, according to data from CrowdTangle.
Neither the radio show nor D’Souza responded to our request for comment.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Provisional Death Counts for Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19). Accessed 6 May 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cases in the U.S. Accessed 6 May 2020.
D’Souza, Dinesh (@DineshDSouza). “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.” Twitter. 2 May 2020.
Walton & Johnson Radio. “CDC Revised the COVID19 Deaths from 65,000 to 37,000.” KPRCradio.iheart.com. 4 May 2020.