Fact check: CDC did not add flu and pneumonia cases to its COVID-19 death count

The claim: CDC admitted adding flu and pneumonia deaths to COVID-19 death count

A Facebook post claims the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention admitted adding flu and pneumonia deaths to the COVID-19 death count

Claims that the CDC “corrected” or “adjusted” the number of COVID-19 deaths to a lower number fuel conspiracy theories that the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax.

Conservative filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza tweeted May 2, “Just like that, CDC reduces its #Coronavirus death count to 37,000. That’s nearly HALF the total they were peddling. Did 30,000 people spring back to life like Lazarus? No, this seems a 'gaffe' – defined as a case of the CDC accidentally telling the truth.” The post was retweeted more than 20,000 times.

USA TODAY reached out to the person who made the Facebook post and D’Souza for comment but did not receive a response.

Archived CDC records show that COVID-19 deaths steadily increased.

 Provisional deaths versus confirmed and probable deaths

As of April 14, the CDC regularly updates two measurements of COVID-19 deaths: provisional deaths (verified by death certificates) and confirmed and probable cases (deaths suspected to have been caused by COVID-19).

The number of provisional deaths is based on data from the National Vital Statistics System, used by the National Center for Health Statistics, which records information from death certificates. This number lags the number of confirmed and probable cases because, according to the CDC’s website, “it can take several weeks for death records to be submitted to (NCHS), processed, coded, and tabulated. Therefore, the data shown on this page may be incomplete, and will likely not include all deaths that occurred during a given time period, especially for the more recent time periods.”

Provisional deaths lag other counts by one or two weeks. The discrepancy has been a source of confusion in some of the posts claiming the CDC corrected or adjusted its count.

When a Twitter user tried to correct D’Souza’s tweet with a screenshot of the number of confirmed and probable cases, D’Souza responded with a screenshot of the number of provisional deaths, saying, “See for yourself,” as if the two numbers were the same calculation.

Uncertain counts

Experts acknowledge there has been widespread underreporting of COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic, so any death tolls do not present the full picture.

Fact check:Is US coronavirus death toll inflated? Experts agree it's probably the opposite

The New York Times reported in April that although the extent of the problem is not clear, a lack of testing, varying requirements for testing, inconsistent protocols for reporting deaths at the local and state level and people dying before being tested means many COVID-19 deaths were never counted.

Fact check:Coronavirus's annual death toll can't be calculated, compared

NPR reported in May that this issue has not improved.  Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a Senate hearing that month the death count is “almost certainly" higher.

COVID-19 death counts have increased, not decreased

Despite incomplete death counts, archived versions of both of the CDC’s coronavirus death counts – provisional and confirmed and probable – have continued to increase since the virus started spreading. There have been no instances of either death count being significantly reduced, as claimed in the Facebook post.

Fact check:CDC's estimates COVID-19 death rate around 0.26%, doesn't confirm it

CDC’s reporting on pneumonia- or influenza-related COVID-19 deaths

The Facebook user claimed the CDC admitted “adding pneumonia and flu with COVID deaths.” This is not true, as Bob Anderson, NCHS chief of mortality statistics,   confirmed to AFP Fact Check

Fact check:CDC has not stopped reporting flu deaths, and this season's numbers are typical

The CDC has changed the extent and format in which it publicly displays death statistics relating to COVID-19 and the other illnesses, which may have contributed to confusion.

According to archived web pages, the CDC has displayed “deaths with pneumonia and COVID-19” next to the count of all provisional COVID-19 deaths since April 3. On April 24, the CDC added a column for deaths from pneumonia, influenza or COVID-19 in addition to the total of COVID-19 deaths.

According to AFP Fact Check, Anderson explained counts in “the ‘All Deaths involving COVID-19’ column only refer to people who died from the disease, not merely with the disease.”

On June 11, the CDC implemented its current format that reports COVID-19, pneumonia and influenza-related deaths. 

The webpage with provisional deaths includes columns for:

  • “Deaths involving Pneumonia, with or without COVID-19, excluding Influenza deaths.”
  • “Deaths involving COVID-19 and Pneumonia, excluding Influenza.” 
  • “All deaths involving Influenza, with or without COVID-19 or pneumonia” or including COVID-19 or pneumonia.
  • “Deaths involving Pneumonia, Influenza or COVID-19.”

The variations of pneumonia and influenza deaths are reported alongside COVID-19 deaths because the illnesses exhibit similar symptoms. Considering all three tallies can provide a better understanding of the extent of COVID-19 cases that may have gone undiagnosed. 

"Deaths due to COVID-19 may be misclassified as pneumonia or influenza deaths in the absence of positive test results, and pneumonia or influenza may appear on death certificates as a comorbid (when a person has two diseases at once) condition," the CDC’s website says. "Additionally, COVID-19 symptoms can be similar to influenza-like illness, thus deaths may be misclassified as influenza."

Despite these new variations, the total provisional count of deaths involving COVID-19 was not significantly reduced. The same goes for confirmed and probable deaths, which continued to increase.

Our ruling: False

Although it’s unclear where the Facebook user found the numbers, the CDC did not lower the death count, nor did it admit adding influenza and pneumonia to its COVID-19 death count. The user may have confused the CDC’s additional reporting of influenza and pneumonia-related deaths or the fact that the CDC reports two different counts for COVID-19 deaths. We rate this claim FALSE because it is not supported by our research.

Our fact-check sources:

Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free app or electronic newspaper replica here.

Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.