Fact Check: Has COVID-19 Had No Impact on Overall US Deaths This Year?

False reports and claims about COVID-19 cases can cause people to ignore the serious consequences of failing to take precautions that might affect them, their family members and friends.

Bob Anderson, chief of the Mortality Statistics Branch at the National Center for Health Statistics at the CDC, said false claims put people's lives in danger.

"In this particular instance, this misinformation may cause people to not take this virus serious, not to do their due diligence in terms of preventing the spread," Anderson told Newsweek. "That's the biggest risk of misinformation."

The Claim

In late November, the student-run Johns Hopkins News-Letter published a story, since retracted, about a study claiming that there have been no extra deaths, known as "excess deaths," in the U.S. this year from COVID-19 compared to deaths expected in an otherwise normal year.

coronavirus testing
People walk into a COVID-19 testing site on December 2, 2020, in San Fernando, California. Mario Tama/Getty

The Facts

This year, there have been nearly 300,000 excess deaths attributed to COVID-19, as of early October, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data.

The story was published on November 22, then taken down, with a retraction published on November 27. The retraction said the study cited in the story "has been used to support dangerous inaccuracies that minimize the impact of the pandemic."

Anderson said taking down the story was warranted.

"The study was retracted by the newsletter for a reason," Anderson said. "It's because it wasn't very good at all."

The student-run publication said its decision was made "to stop the spread of misinformation," and it acknowledged that it had inaccurately claimed that there was "no evidence that COVID-19 created any excess deaths" and that number of total deaths were "not above normal death numbers."

The story, titled "COVID-19 Deaths: A Look at U.S. Data," reported on a webinar by Genevieve Briand, assistant director of the master's in Applied Economics program at the Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. The webinar was predicated on Briand's analyses of publicly available data from the CDC.

In its retraction, the Johns Hopkins student publication said Briand is neither a medical professional nor a disease researcher.

The publication recognized it fell short of "our responsibility as journalists to provide a historical record. Briand's study should not be used exclusively in understanding the impact of COVID-19, but should be taken in context with the countless other data published by Hopkins, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)."

The story, illustrated with a graph compiled by Briand, repeated claims that, "These data analyses suggest that in contrast to most people's assumptions, the number of deaths by COVID-19 is not alarming. In fact, it has relatively no effect on deaths in the United States."

But data from the CDC contradict the original story's reporting, as well as Briand's analyses and claims.

"As of October 15, 216,025 deaths from COVID-19 have been reported in the United States; however, this might underestimate the total impact of the pandemic on mortality," according to the CDC.

"Overall, an estimated 299,028 excess deaths occurred from late January through October 3, 2020, with 198,081 (66%) excess deaths attributed to COVID-19," according to a report on the CDC's website. "Excess deaths are defined as the number of persons who have died from all causes, in excess of the expected number of deaths for a given place and time."

Briand's disputed claims have been repeated by other news outlets and on social media.

WBCK-FM, a Battle Creek, Michigan, news and talk radio station, published a story about the student newsletter's piece on its website December 1 under the headline, "Johns Hopkins University Researcher Finds Death Rate Before And After COVID The Same." The station's story repeated the same claims.

The Ruling

False.

Other news media outlets have debunked the story and the claims. On December 3 under the headline, "Major problems with viral story about Johns Hopkins 'study' on COVID-19 deaths," SFGate reported that the false narrative that COVID-19 hasn't led to an increase in deaths in the U.S. this year was "sweeping the right-wing media ecosystem, amplified on by massively viral tweets."

More importantly, though, data from the CDC contradicts the claim, with an estimated 299,028 excess deaths through October 3, including 198,081 (66 percent) attributed to COVID-19.