The COVID-19 death counts can’t possibly be accurate

A new study from Johns Hopkins that casts doubt on the death toll is summarily suppressed, indicating exactly how ludicrous it is to provide accurate figures in real-time

On November 22, Genevieve Biand, assistant director of the Applied Economics Master’s Degree program at Johns Hopkins, presented research on a webinar that came to a stunning conclusion:  There is no evidence that COVID-19 has caused an increase in the death rate in the United States.

“Total death numbers are not above normal death numbers.  We find no evidence to the contrary,” Briand concluded.

She arrived at this conclusion by analyzing CDC data from 2020 and prior years.  After creating a graphical representation of the 2020 death rates by age group, she noticed that there didn’t appear to be any increase among elderly people before and after the pandemic began in the spring.

This initial conclusion ran contrary to expert opinion:  From mid-March to mid-September, 200,000 of the total 1.7 million deaths in the United States were attributed to COVID-19.  As the disease disproportionately affects the elderly, we should expect to see a marked increase in death rates across those age ranges, but the data showed no such increase.

The data also indicated something equally shocking:  Briand found no significant change in the overall number of deaths across all age ranges, either before or after COVID-19.

Briand’s graph shows no increase in the deaths by age group before and during the pandemic. Image created by Genevieve Brand.

If coronavirus is a rampant new disease, where were the excess deaths?

Briand compiled data from earlier years to try to find out.  From 2014 to 2020, she found the regular seasonal variation in death rates.  In 2018 for example, there was an increase in deaths during the winter months.  This seasonal variation occurs across multiple causes of death, the top three being heart disease, respiratory diseases, influenza and pneumonia.

This is true every year, but what was different about 2020 soon became apparent: COVID-19 deaths in 2020 are outpacing heart disease, usually the leading cause.  In fact, Briand found that there was a significant decrease in heart disease in 2020 not seen in prior years.  Nor was the decrease in causes of death limited to heart disease.  There was a sudden decline for almost all other causes.

The visual representation shows the corresponding decline in deaths from heart disease and other causes during the pandemic. Image created by Genevieve Brand.

Interestingly, the decline was almost perfectly offset with the increase in deaths attributed to COVID-19. For example, the week ending April 18th saw a decline in heart disease related deaths of 1,190 despite that deaths had increased by 824 just the week before. The net result was a decrease of 2,540 deaths from other causes with a corresponding increase of 2,561 deaths from COVID-19.

This chart shows the decline in other causes of death right after the United States begins counting large numbers of COVID-19 deaths in early April. Image created by Genevieve Briand.

To some extent, this shouldn’t have been surprising:  The CDC classifies anyone dying with COVID-19 as dying from COVID-19. 

“If [the COVID-19 death toll] was not misleading at all, what we should have observed is an increased number of heart attacks and increased COVID-19 numbers. But a decreased number of heart attacks and all the other death causes doesn’t give us a choice but to point to some misclassification,” Briand explained in an interview after presenting her findings.

What is surprising, however, is the additional revelation that there might be no increase in the overall number of deaths.

To repeat Briand’s conclusion:  “Total death numbers are not above normal death numbers. We found no evidence to the contrary.”

This study is, of course, countered by other studies indicating that there has been an increase in the overall death rate and reports that deaths from COVID-19 are actually much higher.

For example, the New York Times reported in August that the true coronavirus death toll had already surpassed 200,000.  They analyzed the same CDC data and determined that at least 200,000 more people had died than in a usual year.  At the time, this was 60,000 more deaths than had been attributed to COVID-19 in the publicly available counts.

Who’s right?  Who knows?

None of us are in a position to say, not the experts, nor journalists, nor the lay people, because we’ve never even attempted to count anything like this before, certainly not in near real-time.

Normally, it takes months to compile accurate data sets.  For example, the FBI released the 2019 crime statistics on September 28, 2020.

Yet, somehow coronavirus is supposed to be different:  Deaths occurring in thousands of different counties, hospitals, nursing homes, regular homes, etc., under various local and state jurisdictions, along with the results of almost two million daily tests, are magically compiled into a precise number suitable for display on CNN.

The truth is much more messy:  No one knows for sure, and we likely won’t know for at least another year.

In the meantime, it’s healthy for free people to have a rigorous debate about how we’re counting, what we’re counting, and what the conclusions are.  I’ll even admit it’s healthy to err on the side of counting more deaths due to coronavirus than we would the regular flu or another cause.  A little caution is warranted when dealing with the unknown.

Only, that’s not what we’re doing.  Johns Hopkins itself yanked the study shortly after publication, claiming in a tweet:

“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. We regret that this article may have contributed to the spread of misinformation about COVID-19.”

Notice how they had no issue with the actual study or the data, merely that the ideas presented themselves were being used “falsely” and “dangerously.”

A master’s candidate at Johns Hopkins said it even better, “At the end of the day, it’s still a deadly virus. And over-exaggeration or not, to a certain degree, is irrelevant.”

Yes, you read that right:  Facts and debate are increasingly irrelevant.  The part of science demands it be so.

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