Fact check: False claim that CDC inflating COVID-19 death count

The claim: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention inflated COVID-19 deaths by more than 1,600%

As the U.S. approaches a dark milestone in the COVID-19 pandemic, conspiracy theories about the counting of deaths from the coronavirus are reemerging.

An October report that claims the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is exaggerating the death count from the virus – now at more than 485,000 – by a factor of more than 16 got new traction on several websites in February.

The report in “Science, Public Health Policy, and The Law,” led by a man who has spread misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, relies on a debunked claim that the way the CDC requires comorbidity to be reported on death certificates means that many deaths are incorrectly attributed to the virus.

USA TODAY has reached out to the report’s authors for comment.

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Conspiracy theory about comorbidity stats already debunked

A key piece of the report asks whether a change in the guidance CDC provided in 2020 on filling out death certificates would have changed the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19.

Previous fact checks already have debunked claims that CDC was exaggerating death statistics after it released new data last summer on comorbidity, defined by the CDC as the existence of more than one disease or condition in a person at the same time.

The CDC’s data on comorbidity at the time was incorrectly interpreted by those who claimed it showed COVID-19 was not the cause of death in the 94% of cases where more than one cause also was listed.

Fact check:CDC’s data on COVID-19 deaths used incorrectly in misleading claims

Comorbidities can be chronic conditions that a person can live with, such as diabetes or arthritis.

While those conditions could contribute to a person’s death, their existence doesn’t mean COVID-19 wasn’t the cause of death.

Six in 10 U.S. adults have a chronic disease, according to the CDC, and four in 10 have more than one.

Experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci and the World Health Organization, also have said that COVID-19 deaths likely are undercounted.

The CDC did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the report.

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Report linked to anti-vaccine movement

While online posts about the report say it was a peer-reviewed study, the journal it was published in, “Science, Public Health Policy, and The Law,” did not show up in rankings designed to measure how often journals are cited or used.

That publication’s website lists James Lyons-Weiler as its editor. Lyons-Weiler is the chief executive of the publication’s parent, the Institute for Pure and Applied Knowledge, with links to the anti-vaccine movement.

Lyons-Weiler pushed false information about adverse effects from Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine during a PA Medical Freedom press conference in 2020, according to PolitiFact.

The report also cites other groups involved in the anti-vaccine movement, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense, for which several of the study’s 10 authors have written a report. Kennedy recently was banned from Instagram for promoting misinformation about vaccines, according to the Associated Press.

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The background of the report’s 10 authors includes a naturopathic physician and a chemical engineer with a focus on climate, among others. While it lists affiliations for the authors, it does not show specific credentials.

Our rating: False

The claim that the CDC inflated COVID-19 deaths by more than 1,600% is FALSE, based on research. Previous fact checks have debunked a claim that the CDC was exaggerating death statistics after it released new data about comorbidity in 2020. The report cited by several online outlets has several links to the anti-vaccine movement, and the publication that printed it did not show up in rankings of journals.

Our fact-check sources:

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed Feb.16, “United States COVID-19 Cases and Deaths by State”
  • PolitiFact, Dec. 18, 2020, “Video shared on Facebook inflates risk of Moderna vaccine 40-fold”
  • USA TODAY, Sept. 1, 2020, “Fact check: CDC’s data on COVID-19 deaths used incorrectly in misleading claims”
  • Reuters, Sept. 3, 2020, “Fact check: 94% of individuals with additional causes of death still had COVID-19”
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed Feb. 16, “Chronic Diseases in America”
  • Web of Science Group, accessed Feb. 16, “Master Journal List”
  • Scimago Institutions Rankings, accessed Feb. 16, “Scimago Journal & Country Rank”
  • National Public Radio, May 13, 2020, “Fauci Says U.S. Death Toll Is Likely Higher. Other COVID-19 Stats Need Adjusting, Too”
  • CNBC, Sept. 28, 2020, “Official coronavirus death toll is likely an ‘underestimate’ of the true total, WHO says”
  • USA TODAY, April 17, 2020, “Fact check: Is US coronavirus death toll inflated? Experts agree it’s likely the opposite”
  • Science, Public Heath Policy, and the Law, accessed Feb. 16, Editorial Board
  • The Associated Press, Feb. 11, “RFK Jr. kicked off Instagram for vaccine misinformation”
  • American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, accessed Feb. 16, Paul Anderson biography
  • Climate Change Truth, accessed Feb. 16, Dave White biography

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Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

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