Fox News is Wrong: COVID-19 has Killed Many More People Than Reported

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Two weeks ago I reported that there was a conservative talking point making the rounds claiming that COVID-19 is being overdiagnosed. Here’s what I said:

“What I discovered is that commentators like Brit Hume are amplifying a claim that people who doctors say are dying of COVID-19 are actually dying of other things, but they happened to test positive for COVID-19 and so they become part of the statistic, inflating the actual number of people dying. So for instance, if you have COVID-19 and you get in a car accident and die on the way to the hospital, you’d be considered a COVID-19 death.

“That’s why we won’t actually know the true mortality of COVID-19 for another few years. You can’t just look at the death certificates and come up with a number, which is what we’re doing now because that’s pretty much all you can do in the midst of a pandemic. I actually tried to get the total number of all-cause deaths for various states for March of 2020 but that data is very hard to access, as it should be because we really don’t need more armchair epidemiologists making our lives miserable. But one thing actual scientists can do in the future is look at, for instance, how many people died in New York in March of 2017, 2018, and 2019 and compare it to March of 2020. Then we’ll know the impact COVID-19 had.”

Well, it’s now been another few years (in quarantine time) — normally it would take literal years to get this data but due to the pandemic many countries are hustling to make this data available as soon as possible. So journalists at the New York Times have been able to look at those early numbers for March. And guess what?

“At least 28,000 more people have died during the coronavirus pandemic over the last month than the official Covid-19 death counts report.

“The totals include deaths from Covid-19 as well as those from other causes, likely including people who could not be treated as hospitals became overwhelmed.”

Reporters took the historical average number of deaths for March from the past several years of data and compared it to the total number of people reported to have died in several different countries in March of 2020. What they found was that, for instance, Spain had 66% more deaths than usual. That means nearly 20,000 more people died than in previous years, but there were only 12,401 deaths attributed to COVID-19. That’s 7,300 Spaniards who died in March who wouldn’t have died in a non-pandemic. That is a huge number. That’s not within any error bars. It’s not like in March 2015 there were an extra 9,000 dead people but in March of 2018 there were 5,000 fewer dead people, so 7,000 extra dead people is just the standard deviation. Look at this fucking chart. 

And they didn’t just find this result in other countries — they found it here in the US, and much, much worse. In New York City, this past March saw an increase in deaths of 298%. 17,200 more people died than in past years, but only 13,240 were counted as COVID-19 deaths. That’s 4,000 people who died who probably wouldn’t have died if there wasn’t a pandemic.

The New York Times takes pains to say what I said in my previous video: it’s still early and these numbers are not perfectly accurate portrayals of what is happening. “If anything,” the New York Times reports, “excess deaths are underestimated because not all deaths have been reported.” And the undercounting of COVID-19 deaths probably isn’t intentional — people die outside of hospitals, or without accurate testing, and often without any testing at all because why waste precious tests on the dead when there are living people who need them? 

But the facts are extremely clear at this point: conservatives are wrong. COVID-19 is not being overly diagnosed, it’s being severely underrepresented as a cause of death. And the longer they continue to parrot that particular talking point, the more blood is going to be on their hands as dim-witted Americans take to the streets to protest shelter-in-place orders.

I’ve been fighting pseudoscience for more than a decade now, and while I’ve always understood that misinformation has a real, often deadly cost, I have to say that I’m stunned to see something as deadly as this misinformation happening in real time. This actually eclipses anti-vaccination nonsense in terms of so directly causing harm in such a short time period. Usually the misinformation travels out there into the ether and years later we see the disease outbreaks anti-vaxxers caused, or the flooding and severe storms that global warming denialists indirectly cause. In this case, we have Dr. Drew on Fox News today, and thousands dead in New York tomorrow. It’s truly horrifying. 

I know I’m mostly preaching to the choir here so I want to thank you, the viewer and supporter of science and critical thought, for believing the experts, staying inside, and keeping yourself and those around you healthy.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. The same thing happened with H1N1 swine flu. The number of official cases confirmed by test at the time was 1.6 million, later retrospective analysis suggests there were more like 1.4 billion 3 orders of magnitude higher.

    Fox news pundit Candace Owens cherry picked the larger figure and compared it without explanation to the current test confirmed COVID numbers in order to downplay the seriousness of COVID (no lockdown there, right?) – simultaneously also, Obama guilty (wtf?).

    To put that in context, case fatality rate at the time was estimated by the medical experts at 10x LESS than seasonal flu, plus there was a vaccine ready to use 6 months later.

    I am certain that we are still only seeing the tip of the iceberg here, plus of course – it’s not over.

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