Fact check: Chart does not present accurate US deaths figure for 2020

Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS

A meme claiming to demonstrate that US death rates have not changed in 2020 by comparing recent data with previous years is misleading.

The image is titled “US deaths per year” and features figures said to be the number of annual deaths since 2015 (here). These are: 2015 (2,712,630), 2016 (2,744,248), 2017 (2,813,503), 2018 (2,839,205), 2019 (2,900,689). For 2020, the image says it has taken data up to Nov. 16 and lists 2,487,350 total deaths. It then makes a whole-year projection of 2,818,527.

This table of numbers has since been shared across social media claiming to be proof that the US death tally in 2020 is on par with other years – even with the emergence of COVID-19. But this is not an accurate assumption as it uses a misguided understanding of available data. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has, in fact, estimated hundreds of thousands of excess deaths in 2020 (here).

Firstly, the numbers listed from 2015 through 2018 are official, having been released by the CDC ( here , here , here , here ). However, the final numbers for 2019 have not yet been released, and it is unclear where the image creator took the 2,900,689 figure from. This is the same for the 2020 projection.

Meanwhile, the 2020 figure leading up to Nov. 16 is also an official figure released by the CDC (pdf here ) – but it is not yet an accurate representation of how many people have died in 2020. The table doesn’t begin until the week ending Feb. 1, 2020 and still has six weeks to report between Nov. 16 and the end of the year. The latest weekly data in the Nov. 16 chart also appears to have a much lower death count than previous weeks, which the CDC has said is due to a lag in reporting. This lag can be anywhere between one and eight weeks, or more, and can be demonstrated by comparing the more than 35,000 deaths added to the final figure at the time of publication on the same listing in the report released on Nov.25 (here).

In mid-October, the CDC released analysis of death figures between Jan. 26 and Oct. 3, and revealed there had been an estimated 299,028 excess deaths in 2020 by this time ( here , ). It said of this figure that 198,081 deaths (66%) were believed to be due to COVID-19 – although the department also noted that underestimations could have been made on the total impact of the pandemic. A similar study from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) looking at data between March and July also found US deaths had increased 20% during this period. COVID-19 was attributed to 67% of this excess (here).


Misleading. The data used for 2020 does not account for all the deaths that have actually happened in the year, due to time still yet to be lapsed, the date the counts were launched, and due to a lag in reporting figures. In fact, there have been hundreds of thousands of excess deaths estimated in 2020.

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