The CDC reports more than 2.9 million deaths in the U.S. in 2020; there were at least 377,000 more deaths in 2020 compared to previous years
The COVID-19 pandemic led to more deaths in the U.S. than usual in 2020. So far, more than 2.9 million deaths in the U.S. were recorded in 2020, exceeding the total number of deaths in the U.S. in 2019, which is currently estimated at about 2.85 million. It is important to keep in mind that reports of death counts experience a time lag, hence the current death count for 2020 is incomplete and will likely grow as records are completed. The larger number of deaths than usual observed in 2020 is consistent with reports of excess deaths in 2020. Excess death is a measure of how many more deaths occurred over a period of time compared to the same time period in previous years.
Factually inaccurate: It is false to say there were fewer or a similar number of deaths in the US in 2020 compared to previous years. On 31 December 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 2,913,144 total deaths, which was based on data from 30 December. Furthermore, this is only a provisional figure. The true figure is likely even larger, given that the death count available on 31 December is incomplete due to a time lag in reporting.
Misleading: The figure of 2,835,533 cited in several Facebook posts, which were published at the end of 2020, was outdated. However, these posts failed to signal this fact to readers, leaving the impression that 2,835,533 was the total number of deaths in 2020.
A screenshot of a tweet made by rapper and activist Maj Toure on 31 December 2020 (see the original tweet archived here) claiming that there were fewer deaths in America in 2020 compared to 2019, was published in numerous Facebook posts and went viral on the platform. Specifically, the tweet reads: “American deaths in 2019 (No Covid): 2,854,838; American deaths in 2020 (With Covid): 2,835,533”. Similar posts on Facebook, published in late 2020 and early 2021, claimed that there were fewer deaths in 2020 than in 2019 (see examples here and here), or that the death rate did not change (see example).
These posts are inaccurate to claim that there were fewer deaths in the U.S. in 2020 compared to 2019. On 31 December 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 2,913,144 total deaths in 2020, which was updated on 30 December. Therefore, the figure of 2,835,533 cited in the Facebook posts falls short by more than 77,000 deaths. As a point of reference, the number of Americans killed in World War I and the Vietnam War was reported by National Geographic to be 53,402 and 58,220, respectively.
These posts were published at the end of December 2020 or in January 2021, but used outdated figures. This left some social media users with the inaccurate impression that the total number of deaths in 2020 was lower than that of 2019, when this is not the case.
The post claiming that death rates in 2020 were no different from previous years was fact-checked by USA Today and found to be misleading, as it used incomplete data. Specifically, the fact-check said the total number of deaths for 2020 has not been finalized yet, “making it near impossible to make accurate year-to-year comparisons yet.” In addition, the total number of deaths for 2020 stated in these claims is incomplete, as the figure does not include deaths from January 2020. As the CDC explained on its page that provides weekly updates on deaths:
“As of January 4, 2021, the tables and datasets on this page include data from January 2020 through the present data period. Cumulative death totals will be higher than previous reports which were restricted to include data from the week ending February 1, 2020.”
Snopes also fact-checked the post and found it to be false. Snopes found that the post used actual statistics from the CDC WONDER database, hence “the table in general […] correctly reported […] fatality rates per 100,000 residents and populations [between 2010 and 2018], displaying only nonsignificant differences with the actual numbers in both categories.” But the post “misconstrued preliminary data to falsely claim approximately 2.9 million died in 2020 when the confirmed sum of deaths for that year was undetermined.”
Readers should also be aware that the number of total deaths reported by the CDC on 31 December 2020 don’t reflect all deaths for that year, as reports of deaths experience a time lag. As the CDC cautioned:
“It is important to note that it can take several weeks for death records to be submitted to National Center for Health Statistics (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. Death counts for earlier weeks are continually revised and may increase or decrease as new and updated death certificate data are received from the states by NCHS. COVID-19 death counts shown here may differ from other published sources, as data currently are lagged by an average of 1–2 weeks.”
The higher number of total deaths reported for 2020 compared to previous years is consistent with reports of excess death in 2020, which is a measure of how many more deaths have occurred over a period of time as compared to the same time period in previous years. This was observed in both in the U.S. (see Figure 1) and in other parts of the world, as reported by The Economist. Health Feedback also covered the subject of excess deaths in an earlier review.
The New York Times’ most recently updated figure, published on 16 December 2020, placed excess deaths at 377,000.
Figure 1. Number of deaths per week, starting from 2017. The orange line denotes historical trends for deaths counts on that particular week every year, beginning from 2013. Note the blue-coloured segments above the orange line for weeks in 2020, which represent excess deaths. Data obtained from this U.S. CDC page on 6 January 2021.
Overall, these Facebook posts downplay the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic by claiming that the number of deaths in 2020 is similar to or less than that of previous years. This is clearly false, as preliminary mortality data clearly show that more people died in 2020 compared to 2019. And as more death certificates are received by the CDC, the total number of deaths reported for the year 2020 is only likely to increase.
UPDATE (12 Jan. 2021):
This review was updated to include an explanation that the number of total deaths for 2020 provided in these claims was incomplete and did not include deaths from January 2020.
- 1 – Rossen et al. (2020) Excess Deaths Associated with COVID-19, by Age and Race and Ethnicity — United States, January 26–October 3, 2020. Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report.