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VERIFY: Comparing total deaths in U.S. in 2018 vs. 2020 to determine impact of COVID-19

An oft-shared Facebook post claims that the number of total deaths in the country was similar in 2018 and 2020, casting doubt on the impact of the novel coronavirus.

TYLER, Texas — As people look for numbers to help them make sense of the coronavirus pandemic, the number of excess deaths has become an important one. If the overall number of deaths is way above what the United States has reported in the past, the difference would indicate the impact of COVID-19.

But a viewer wanted to know if a Facebook post saying there is no difference, was true.

Eddie Leibold emailed about a Facebook post someone shared with him. It is a long post that starts with, "Let me give you two numbers: 944,251 and 946,067. Both were obtained from the CDC website. The first number is the total number of U.S. deaths from January through April 2020.  The second number is the total number of U.S. deaths from January through April 2018.”

It goes on to argue that since the numbers were so similar, COVID-19 cannot be very bad.

Since the post cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that is where we will go to verify this claim.

In its flu surveillance report, it shows how many Americans died every week since 2013, and the Facebook post appears to have used this as its source.

Reuters looked into a similar claim in May and its fact-checkers showed that the numbers were accurate. But the CDC has a disclaimer on its website that deaths numbers will often be revised because it can take several weeks for death records to be submitted, processed, and counted.

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Since the Reuters article was published, the CDC has revised its 2020 data, adding almost 50,000 more deaths. The first four months of 2020 now show significantly more deaths than the first four months of 2018, and the post is false.

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But there is more to consider in this case. That period in 2018 coincides with the peak of the deadliest flu season in decades. This is born out by the fact that the number of deaths in the country during the first four months of 2018 was higher than the same period in 2019.

This year’s flu season was not as bad, but COVID-19 deaths have continued far past the end of flu season. According to the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, there were approximately 64,558 deaths in the U.S. due to complications from COVID-19 as of April 30. Now, that number is past 140,000.

Another way to see the impact of COVID-19 is to realize that deaths are higher thus far than in years past despite the many restrictions imposed by federal, state, and local governments and precautions taken by so many people.

It may be a while before we know the true toll of COVID-19, but it is already clear that this year is out of the ordinary, and when the number of excess deaths can be established, we will have a much better sense of how deadly it was.

If you have something you want verified, send an email to dlippman@cbs19.tv.

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