Major problems with viral story about Johns Hopkins ‘study’ on COVID-19 deaths

Sweeping the right-wing media ecosystem, amplified by massively viral tweets, is the claim that Johns Hopkins released — and quickly deleted — a study showing COVID-19 hasn’t led to an increase in deaths in the U.S. this year.

It’s being used to justify false narratives that the pandemic isn’t deadly and that lockdowns are tyrannical overreach by state governments. One often-linked write-up on PJ Media, a right-wing political site, describes the story thusly:

“According to the study, ‘in contrast to most people’s assumptions, the number of deaths by COVID-19 is not alarming. In fact, it has relatively no effect on deaths in the United States.’ Wait, what? Really? That’s what it says. And, it should come as no surprise that the study was deleted within days.”

There are, however, major issues with this so-called study.

For one, calling it a “Johns Hopkins study” is inaccurate. The now-broken URL didn’t point to a study at all, but an article that appeared in the Johns Hopkins News-Letter, a student-run publication, on Nov. 22. The story, headlined “A closer look at U.S. deaths due to COVID-19,” was based on a YouTube webinar hosted by Genevieve Briand, an assistant program director in Hopkins’ applied economics department. Briand is “neither a medical professional nor a disease researcher,” the News-Letter notes.

In her presentation, Briand used CDC data from early February to early September to claim 2020 does not appear to have more deaths, something you’d expect to see when a deadly pandemic is sweeping the world.

“All of this points to no evidence that COVID-19 created any excess deaths,” Briand told the News-Letter. “Total death numbers are not above normal death numbers.”

This is not accurate. This data point didn’t use raw case numbers. Instead, Briand used proportional comparisons to make her determination. Per the article, “Briand compiled a graph representing percentages of total deaths per age category … The percentages of deaths among all age groups remain relatively the same.”

A quick search of the CDC shows there are more total deaths in 2020 than in 2019; the agency even tracks those numbers in a dashboard here. An October report from the CDC estimates the U.S. has experienced approximately 299,028 excess deaths from late January through October 3, 2020. Nearly 200,000 of those excess deaths can be attributed to the coronavirus. Two recent reports in the Journal of the American Medical Association support these findings.

Briand also claims the number of deaths among elderly people were consistent before and after the pandemic. Data from the CDC does not back this assertion:

Data from the CDC's excess deaths due to COVID-19 database show deaths trending higher in nearly every category year-over-year.

Data from the CDC’s excess deaths due to COVID-19 database show deaths trending higher in nearly every category year-over-year.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Briand also repeats a common misunderstanding about how deaths due to the coronavirus are categorized. In the story, she suggested deaths caused by heart disease, flu, pneumonia and more may be getting classified as COVID deaths. As health experts have repeatedly explained, this is not happening at any kind of scale that would lead to hundreds of thousands of misreported deaths. A doctor, coroner or medical examiner is responsible for filling out death certificates. There are separate fields for the chain of events that led to a person’s death and pre-existing conditions, sometimes called comorbidities. Although a person may have heart disease as a pre-existing condition, if they tested positive for COVID-19 and experienced the series of symptoms that are associated with the virus, ultimately resulting in death, COVID-19 is listed as the cause of death.

“Even such a person with a potentially life-shortening pre-existing condition such as heart disease or diabetes may have lived another five, 10 or many more years, had they not become infected with COVID-19,” an excellent explainer in Scientific American says.

Despite PJ Media’s conspiratorial tone about why the News-Letter story was taken down, there’s no subterfuge there. The students at the News-Letter realized the article had taken off in the misinformation-sphere and, in an attempt to stop it, took the article down and issued a retraction.

Unfortunately, by simply nuking the link off the internet, the publication made the problem worse, giving rise to conspiracy theories that because the story ran counter to the “media narrative” about COVID deaths, it was removed. Although the original link that circulated online is dead, the News-Letter uploaded the original story as a PDF which can be found here.

“Though making clear the need for further research, the article was being used to support false and dangerous inaccuracies about the impact of the pandemic,” the editors’ note reads. “We regret that this article may have contributed to the spread of misinformation about COVID-19.”

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