Fact check: COVID-19 not falling below 'epidemic threshold' in near future
The claim: Deaths from the coronavirus may fall below an 'epidemic threshold,' meaning the virus is no longer a threat
The United States has more than 3.9 million cases of coronavirus as the country experiences one of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19 in the world. Social media claims, however, erroneously state that recent data shows the threat from the virus is lessening.
"Despite the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, deaths have continued to decline and may soon reach a level where the coronavirus will no longer qualify as an epidemic under CDC guidelines," an article published by Just The News erroneously claims.
The claim spread across social media, with many posts repeating the same language that "You wouldn't have guessed this based off the recent media coverage."
The article misconstrues a July 4 weekly update from the Centers for Disease Control which discussed a brief decline in the percentage of national deaths attributed to pneumonia, influenza or COVID-19. That same CDC posting noted, "The percentage is currently below the epidemic threshold but will likely change as more death certificates are processed, particularly for recent weeks."
The CDC has clarified that the epidemic threshold in question has no bearing on whether COVID-19 can be considered a pandemic, and experts are in consensus that the disease remains widespread and dangerous.
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The definition of an 'epidemic'
The Centers for Disease Control defines an epidemic as "an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area."
The agency clarified the definition of the "epidemic threshold," emphasizing, "This one piece of data doesn’t have bearing on whether COVID-19 is still an epidemic."
"The 'epidemic threshold' refers to the point at which the observed proportion of deaths is significantly higher than would be expected at that time of the year in the absence of substantial influenza, and now COVID-related mortality," Kristen Nordlund, a CDC spokeswoman, told USA TODAY.
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"This 'epidemic threshold' wording only refers to deaths related to COVID-19, which are a lagging indicator of disease activity. The death data is also something that gets filled in as more data – in this case death certificates – are added," she continued.
Since the viral claims were circulated, case numbers and deaths from COVID-19 have both risen, especially in the Sun Belt region of the United States.
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"It always struck me as yet another example of the inability of people to understand the tempo and the lag for a number of these public health statistics," Yonatan Grad, a professor immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard University, told USA TODAY.
"It continues to be one of the main challenges with this pandemic," he said.
As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, public health officials have stated that they expect the number of hospitalizations and deaths to continue to climb, as well.
"We expect hospitalizations to continue to go up," Adm. Brett Giroir, a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, said July 12. "Even though the death rate, if you get it, is going down, your chances of surviving are much better, we do expect deaths to go up," he added.
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“In Wuhan, in Lombardy, in New York City, we saw that cases go up and then they are followed by deaths. It takes time for people to get sick and then require hospitalization, and then in turn get so sick that they die. It should be no surprise that there is a rise in cases and then a rise in deaths," Grad said.
A USA TODAY report on July 14 found that almost half of states are experiencing coronavirus outbreaks at a faster rate than they were in the spring. Officials are confident the high numbers cannot be attributed solely to increased testing, which is often still lacking in many areas.
While it is unclear how the numbers will translate into deaths, experts and public health officials are certain that a spike in case numbers is damaging to overall health and the economy.
"The fatality rate in younger groups is much lower than their older counterparts, but that does not mean that there isn't significant risk for younger groups, as well as damage that we don't fully understand yet," Grad said.
Our ruling: False
The "epidemic threshold" is a single data point the CDC uses for analysis of disease outbreaks among other factors. Changes in the death rate do not have influence over whether a disease constitutes an epidemic, especially when its spread is as virulent as the new coronavirus. We rate this claim FALSE because it is not supported by our research.
Our fact-check sources:
- CDC, COVIDView Weekly Summary for July 4
- CDC, Principles of Epidemiology
- Associated Press, Coronavirus deaths take a long-expected turn for the worse
- USA TODAY, 'We do expect deaths to go up,' warns White House COVID-19 task force's Adm. Giroir as cases rise
- USA TODAY, Almost half of all states are spiking at a faster rate than in the spring, USA TODAY study finds
- USA TODAY, 'Pushing the frontiers': Long lines for COVID tests, stressed labs delay results as demand spikes
- Reuters, Big U.S. banks predict more economic pain from coronavirus
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