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VERIFY: No, coronavirus death counts aren't being inflated

A viral claim making the rounds states that coronavirus numbers are being inflated either by accident or on purpose. But there are many reasons why this isn't true.

SPOKANE COUNTY, Wash. — It's a common allegation sent to the KREM 2 newsroom; that the number of coronavirus deaths are being inflated or intentionally over-reported.

In fact, a KREM viewer recently left our Mark Hanrahan a voicemail with concerns about this claim.

"I would like verified that the numbers they're putting up of people dying of COVID-19, that it's actually people dying from the virus. Because somebody came on TV and said they were counting all of the deaths - natural causes and everything - which would mean that if that were true, the numbers you're putting out for the virus killing people don't mean a thing," the viewer said.

So, we set out to verify if coronavirus death numbers are being inflated.

Sources

Our sources to verify this claim are the Journal of the American Medical Association, Johns Hopkins University and Dr. Sally Aiken, the Spokane County Medical Examiner who also serves as the President of the National Association of Medical Examiners.

Are coronavirus death numbers inflated?

"The underlying sentiment when people ask these questions seem to be that there's an over-reporting, or even a falsification of the number of COVID deaths, and the data just isn't showing that," Dr. Aiken said.

Aiken said there are clear guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for certifying deaths as happening due to COVID-19. A patient must have COVID-19 symptoms and test positive for the coronavirus.

If a doctor has compelling reasons to believe a patient has died from COVID-19, but there was not a test to confirm those cases, the case is listed as "probable" or "presumed," according to Aiken.

"I've seen rumors on the internet that says medical examiners are certifying any death, even if it's a suicide or homicide with a positive test, as COVID-19. [That's] not true," Aiken said.

According to Johns Hopkins University, roughly 180,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. Nearly 1,900 Washingtonians have died from the virus, and COVID-19 has claimed 325 live in Idaho. 

Aiken said those numbers aren't over-reported, but are most likely too low.

"Most likely it is [too low]. That's for a couple of reasons. One is that there is a false negative rate for the COVID test, and it can be fairly high. It can be as high as one in five tests that's false negative," Aiken said.

Aiken also cited a recent study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study looked at the number of United States deaths from March 1 to May 30 of this year. 

The study found that there were roughly 122,000 more deaths during that time this year as compared to previous years. Of those, only about 95,000 were attributed to COVID-19.

"So, that still leaves 28 percent extra deaths beyond those 95,000 that weren't accounted for and, and that probably mostly represents an under-counting of COVID deaths, because at that time, there was a lack of testing. Deaths weren't probably being recognized in home setting and for a variety of other reasons," Aiken said. 

Aiken also wanted to address another point to push back on claims that there's a nationwide conspiracy to inflate COVID death counts. She pointed out that there are 2,400 death investigation jurisdictions in the country. Some communities have non-partisan medical examiners, while others have coroners, which are elected officials.

"The fact that all of us could agree on anything would be pretty unusual, but the possibility of us doing any kind of conspiracy to inflate numbers related to COVID is just laughable. Because let me tell you, it wouldn't happen," Dr. Aiken said.

Verdict

We can verify that the claim that coronavirus death counts are being inflated, either intentionally or accidentally, are false.

Have a claim you want verified? Email our VERIFY team at verify@krem.com, visit krem.com/verify, or text verify to (509) 448-2000. You can also leave a voicemail for Mark Hanrahan at (509) 838-7334.