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VERIFY: Comparing the number of total deaths in the US across years

Social media claims show that the number of total deaths in the U.S. have not increased in 2020, meaning COVID-19 has limited impact.

TYLER, Texas — As the coronavirus pandemic continues into its eighth month, questions remain about the true impact of the virus.

The numbers rise every day, every week. Nearly 215,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, including more than 16,000 Texans. But a common concern is that those people did not die due to COVID-19, but rather because they just happened to have it when they died.

One way to measure the unique impact of the pandemic is to compare the number of total deaths in the country. Deaths due to COVID-19 may be challenging to measure because the virus most severely affects people with underlying health conditions, but any difference in the number of total deaths, known as excess deaths, can likely be linked to COVID-19.

Several similar claims can be found on social media comparing the number of total deaths in 2020 to the number of deaths in 2018 and 2019. They indicate that, at the pace we have seen so far in 2020, there would be fewer total deaths by the end of this year.

To verify this claim, we will look at data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Every week, with its weekly flu report, the CDC includes data about the number of deaths from all causes each week of the year, dating back to 2013.

The most recent report includes data up to the week ending October 3.

So far this year, 2.39 million Americans have died of all causes. At the same point in both 2018 and 2019, it was 2.17 million. The difference nearly matches the reported number of COVID-19 victims.

When comparing over the course of the full year, 2.84 million people died during all of 2019, and 2.83 million people died in 2018. By using the rate of deaths so far in 2020 and extrapolating through the end of the year (a simple projection), more than 3.1 million people will have died by December 31.

No one can know for sure what will happen in the future, but we can verify that the original claim is false.

Another point worth noting: the CDC’s numbers are based on deaths certificates. It includes the certificates it has received, but it can take a few weeks for all of them from a given day to be submitted and recorded. So, the numbers for the most recent couple weeks will keep rising as more death certificates are sent in, making the difference between 2020 and previous years even more pronounced.

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