One of a small group of British anti-lockdown protesters speaks to a police officer in London on May 2. (JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s the notion that some Trump allies and conservative media figures just can’t kick: The idea that the official death toll from the coronavirus is being inflated. They use the argument to suggest, as Trump has, that outbreak is being politically weaponized against him. They also use it to argue for a swifter reopening of the economy.

Unfortunately, their latest theory is just as specious as its predecessors.

Over the weekend, this quest for an inflated-death-toll smoking gun focused on one page on the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Web page, which relays data from death certificates, currently shows the coronavirus death toll at 37,308 — far lower than other estimates, which have it around 66,000 or 67,000.

This led to allegations that the CDC had suddenly revised its death toll significantly downward or that the death toll is dropping off in recent weeks, as the week-by-week data on the Web page would appear to suggest. While it shows more than 12,000 coronavirus deaths for the week ending April 11, that drops to about 10,400 the following week and about 3,200 the next week.

Just The News, a website recently launched by Trump-friendly journalist John Solomon, ran with this headline: “CDC: Coronavirus, influenza deaths fall for second straight week.”

A tweet from right-wing media personality Tim Young went viral, stating, “Did I read this wrong or did the CDC just revised the national COVID-19 deaths to 37,308?!?!” Other right-wing media posts suggesting as much were widely shared.

The claim was also made on “Fox and Friends" this weekend via actress Sam Sorbo, with no pushback from the hosts. And Fox News host Laura Ingraham on Sunday night promoted an article from a random website called trendingpolitics.com that alleged the CDC had suddenly cut the death toll “Nearly In HALF.”

“What’s the explanation here?” she asked.

It’s pretty simple, actually.

Even a cursory look at the Web page at issue should disabuse anyone of this particular theory. At the top, the page clearly says these data are based upon death certificates and are thus a lagging indicator of the death toll.

“Note: Provisional death counts are based on death certificate data received and coded by the National Center for Health Statistics as of May 1, 2020," it says. "Death counts are delayed and may differ from other published sources.”

This word of caution is repeated throughout the page, in fact. Below the table of weekly deaths, it says, “Data during this period are incomplete because of the lag in time between when the death occurred and when the death certificate is completed, submitted to [the National Center for Health Statistics] and processed for reporting purposes. This delay can range from 1 week to 8 weeks or more.”

In other words, there is a very good reason the data show a drop in deaths for the last two weeks: because the data are incomplete and hardly up to date.

Just look at the number of total deaths — i.e. not just coronavirus deaths — in the table. Did Americans suddenly stop dying of all causes in recent weeks? Of course not. The data just haven’t arrived yet.


And the idea that this reveals some kind of downward revision in the overall death toll is complete bunk. The Web page at issue has existed since at least early April, according to the Wayback Machine, with the same disclaimers about the lag in data.

What’s more, the CDC’s website elsewhere reports a similar death toll as everyone else: 65,735. These data, like the ones in media reports, cite reports of deaths from the states — deaths for which death certificates may not yet have been transmitted and coded by the CDC.

The whole things harks back to another easily debunked theory floated by a Fox News personality. A month ago, some conservatives pointed to other data on the CDC website — for pneumonia deaths — to argue that the coronavirus death toll was inflated. The apparent drop-off in pneumonia deaths, they argued, suggested pneumonia deaths were being wrongly coded as coronavirus deaths to juice the numbers.

Fox News’s Tucker Carlson even did a segment on it. The only problem? The data was, again, lagging. And it didn’t even account for the time period in which coronavirus deaths began to rise significantly.

As I wrote then:

“For the last few weeks, that [pneumonia] number has come in far lower than at the same moment in previous years. How could that be?” Carlson asked. “Well, it seems entirely possible that doctors are classifying conventional pneumonia deaths as covid-19 deaths. That would mean this epidemic is being credited for thousands of deaths that would have occurred if the virus never appeared here.”

...

But the CDC says these data are generally incomplete, even for months. A study of 2015′s data showed that “mortality data is approximately 27% complete within 2 weeks, 54% complete within 4 weeks, and at least 75% complete within 8 weeks of when the death occurred.”

As you look closely, you’ll notice the dates of these data. The last week for which we have any data is the week that ended March 21. Why is that March 21 date important? By that point, the United States had logged just 385 deaths from the coronavirus. There’s no way “thousands” of pneumonia deaths were being wrongly classified as deaths from the coronavirus because there weren’t even 1,000 coronavirus deaths logged, period.

This theory has apparently been shelved — and for good reason: Now that the data have actually arrived for recent weeks, they actually show the number of pneumonia deaths has spiked, rather than dropped. By the same logic featured here, that would suggest coronavirus deaths might actually be undersold, because some are reported as being due to pneumonia.

On the same show, Fox News analyst Brit Hume lodged one of his own oft-repeated theories about an inflated death toll, suggesting that people who have underlying conditions who die in the brief period after contracting covid-19 might have in fact somehow died of those underlying conditions. The theory was also floated the next day during Fox’s daytime programming.

Except Deborah Birx, a leading medical expert on the White House coronavirus task force, quickly quashed that idea.

“Those individuals will have an underlying condition, but that underlying condition did not cause their acute death when it’s related to a covid infection,” Birx said. “In fact, it’s the opposite.”

The other leading medical expert on the coronavirus task force, Anthony S. Fauci, followed up by warning against such “conspiracy theories.”

Even Trump himself has rejected the idea that coronavirus data are incorrect. Despite retweeting a claim that mortality is being inflated because infection rates are underreported, Trump last week assured, “I can only say what we’re doing; we’re reporting very accurately."

He added: “It’s very important to us to do very accurate reporting, and that’s what we’re doing.”

But Trump has sent other signals on this, including with that retweet and with the early argument that the virus is being weaponized against him as some kind of “hoax.”

So apparently the idea of an inflated coronavirus death toll is something that just won’t go away, no matter how easily debunked the various theories are — and even as there is much more convincing evidence that it’s actually understating the number of deaths.


This post has been updated.