At the beginning of May 2020, widely circulated social media posts asserted that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had substantially decreased the number of deaths in the United States caused by COVID-19 from 60,000 down to about 37,000.
Soon, the idea was everywhere that the CDC had been reporting the number of deaths by COVID-19 incorrectly, the CDC was openly admitting that the number of deaths from coronavirus is far less than the 67,000 deaths commonly being reported by the media.
For many, the story was too good to resist, since it combined their belief that the government had overreacted to the threat posed by the coronavirus with their distaste for and distrust of the media.
However, the story wasn't entirely true.
The link on the CDC website, headlined "Provisional Death Counts for Coronavirus Disease” does show the deaths from Covid-19 as 38,576.
This number is tremendously lower than the 68,285 deaths being reported by Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering.
But you only need to read the text on the page to see what explains the difference in the numbers, and the key point is:
"The provisional counts for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) deaths are based on a current flow of mortality data in the National Vital Statistics System. National provisional counts include deaths occurring within the 50 states and the District of Columbia that have been received and coded as of the date specified. It is important to note that it can take several weeks for death records to be submitted to the National Center for Health Statistics (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. Death counts for earlier weeks are continually revised and may increase or decrease as new and updated death certificate data are received from the states by NCHS. COVID-19 death counts shown here may differ from other published sources, as data currently are lagged by an average of 1–2 weeks.
Provisional death counts may not match counts from other sources, such as media reports or numbers from county health departments. Our counts often track 1–2 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. States report at different rates. Currently, 63% of all U.S. deaths are reported within 10 days of the date of death, but there is significant variation among jurisdictions. It takes extra time to code COVID-19 deaths. While 80% of deaths are electronically processed and coded by NCHS within minutes, most deaths from COVID-19 must be coded manually, which takes an average of 7 days. Other reporting systems use different definitions or methods for counting deaths.”
The number that was being shown on 4/16/20 showed that the total deaths from coronavirus was only 11,356, and deaths from pneumonia, influenza or Covid-19 was 54,217.
These numbers were peddled as evidence of some sort of revelation about the "real" death count were, in fact, numbers that the CDC acknowledges are weeks behind the actual mortality number.
The CDC’s page’s “About the Data” section explains, its data are updated daily based on “Case notifications received by CDC from U.S. public health jurisdictions and the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System (NNDSS)” and includes “both confirmed and probable deaths.”
This more up-to-date page will obviously report higher death figures than one whose data lag by 1-2 weeks.
Two weeks earlier, the “Cases in the U.S.” page had displayed a total of 35,443 deaths, a number much closer to the 37,308 figure reported by the “Provisional Death Counts” with its 1-2 week data lag.
Jonathan Swift’s quote that "a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes" rings truer today thanks to the internet's power to multiply and spread fake news.
Coronavirus has laid out just how big a misinformation problem we have in the United States and taking context from facts in order to weaponize them, and all of us are potential victims.