STORY UPDATED: check for updates below.
Is it true the lethality of COVID-19 is being overblown by government mortality data, and was a Johns Hopkins University student paper censored when it posted a story about that claim? No, that is not true. There is no evidence that official COVID-19 death tallies have hidden some other cause of unexpected deaths in 2020. The student paper's retracted article contained inaccuracies that should have been caught during the editing process -- errors that led to online sharing of misinformation, according to The Johns Hopkins News-Letter managing editors. A version of the story can still be found online and the News-Letter staff kept a PDF version, eradicating censorship concerns.
The claim about deaths being exaggerated was found in an article (archived here) published November 22, 2020, by The Johns Hopkins News-Letter and titled "A closer look at U.S. deaths due to COVID-19." The story read in part:
In an interview with The News-Letter, [Assistant Program Director of the Applied Economics master's degree program at Hopkins Genevieve] Briand addressed the question of whether COVID-19 deaths can be called misleading since the infection might have exacerbated and even led to deaths by other underlying diseases.
"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 replied.
In other words, the effect of COVID-19 on deaths in the U.S. is considered problematic only when it increases the total number of deaths or the true death burden by a significant amount in addition to the expected deaths by other causes. Since the crude number of total deaths by all causes before and after COVID-19 has stayed the same, one can hardly say, in Briand's view, that COVID-19 deaths are concerning.
This is false and a mis-statement of death certificate data, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other medical experts -- including Johns Hopkins, which keeps an updated count of coronavirus cases and COVID-19 deaths. The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported November 27, 2020, that 264,241 deaths have been reported in the U.S. due to the disease.
For its part, the CDC reported a little more than two hours earlier that 262,273 had died of COVID-19 in the U.S.
The paper initially posted a tweet about the retraction, which was done late on November 26. And it drew quick accusations of censorship. For example:
"Come on, man." You don't pull an article for how it is interpreted.-- Just Phil (@PABCPhil) November 27, 2020
What happened to academic freedom and freedom of the press? Sounds like you need to do a little peaceful protesting.
As for user Just Phil's claim of some breach of academic and press freedoms, the paper's two managing editors -- Marvis Gutierrez and Ariella Shua -- wrote to Lead Stories to say they had not been censored:
The article in question was retracted last night, as it was being used to spread misinformation about the pandemic. We have preserved the article as a PDF and posted an Editor's Note with full clarification about our decision, highlighting the inaccuracies of the study...We were not censored, but decided to retract the article based on the reasons outlined in the Editor's Note."
Here is the full Editor's Note:
Editor's Note: After The News-Letter published this article on Nov. 22, it was brought to our attention that our coverage of Genevieve Briand's presentation "COVID-19 Deaths: A Look at U.S. Data" has been used to support dangerous inaccuracies that minimize the impact of the pandemic.
We decided on Nov. 26 to retract this article to stop the spread of misinformation, as we noted on social media. However, it is our responsibility as journalists to provide a historical record. We have chosen to take down the article from our website, but it is available here as a PDF.
In accordance with our standards for transparency, we are sharing with our readers how we came to this decision. The News-Letter is an editorially and financially independent, student-run publication. Our articles and content are not endorsed by the University or the School of Medicine, and our decision to retract this article was made independently.
Briand's study should not be used exclusively in understanding the impact of COVID-19, but should be taken in context with the countless other data published by Hopkins, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
As assistant director for the Master's in Applied Economics program at Hopkins, Briand is neither a medical professional nor a disease researcher. At her talk, she herself stated that more research and data are needed to understand the effects of COVID-19 in the U.S.
Briand was quoted in the article as saying, "All of this points to no evidence that COVID-19 created any excess deaths. Total death numbers are not above normal death numbers." This claim is incorrect and does not take into account the spike in raw death count from all causes compared to previous years. According to the CDC, there have been almost 300,000 excess deaths due to COVID-19. Additionally, Briand presented data of total U.S. deaths in comparison to COVID-19-related deaths as a proportion percentage, which trivializes the repercussions of the pandemic. This evidence does not disprove the severity of COVID-19; an increase in excess deaths is not represented in these proportionalities because they are offered as percentages, not raw numbers.
Briand also claimed in her analysis that deaths due to heart diseases, respiratory diseases, influenza and pneumonia may be incorrectly categorized as COVID-19-related deaths. However, COVID-19 disproportionately affects those with preexisting conditions, so those with those underlying conditions are statistically more likely to be severely affected and die from the virus.
Because of these inaccuracies and our failure to provide additional information about the effects of COVID-19, The News-Letter decided to retract this article. It is our duty as a publication to combat the spread of misinformation and to enhance our fact-checking process. We apologize to our readers.
Lead Stories has called a university spokesperson. We will update this story, if warranted, when we hear back.
The author, Yanni Gu, getting her Neuroscience and German majors at the Baltimore-based university, wrote this response on LinkedIn to the paper's yanking of the original story. The response includes the following:
Today, on November 27th, The News-Letter officially posted their reason for retracting the article, stating inaccuracies in the analysis. I am frustrated at the explanation, and I think it is disrespectful to Dr. Briand's hard work putting data together and doing an honest analysis. If her analysis was to be contradicted, then at least an equal-level analysis should be done to provide more data and thus a new conclusion. Dr. Briand and her work deserve such respect.
I have received many messages asking the reason for taking the article down, and so I would like to officially express my opinions here. I even got emails saying that thanks to me, people now will not be wearing masks or practicing social distancing. They called me "a COVID denier and a minimizer" and that I have no idea the damage and the lives cost in me writing such an article. I was devastated to receive such accusations, but I stand my ground. The goal is never to undermine the effects of COVID-19 but to suggest a possible over-exaggeration in death numbers due to the pandemic.
In a Nov. 27, 2020 email to Lead Stories, Professor Briand did not challenge the characterization of her findings in either the original article in The News-Letter, nor in the retraction of it:
Their decision to retract the article was their own. Yanni Gu did an excellent at reporting the content of the presentation. The full presentation is available at: Covid-19 Deaths: A Look at U.S. Data - YouTube. I explain during the presentation where I found and downloaded the data from, so anyone can easily replicate my analysis.
Much misinformation has played out on social media -- and has been espoused by some politicians -- about the new coronavirus and COVID-19 not being as dangerous or as deadly as proclaimed by officials such as Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx. Lead Stories has written several articles about the 1% death rate of COVID-19 patients and how that shows up as what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classify as excess deaths. Making a comparison of yearly death totals from all causes to 2020 totals is one way CDC experts conclude there have been nearly 300,000 deaths attributable to the pandemic. Past Lead Stories articles on this question can be found here, here and here.
2020-11-29T14:21:04Z 2020-11-29T14:21:04ZChanged headline from "Fact Check: COVID-19 Deaths NOT Overblown; Johns Hopkins Student Paper NOT Censored" to "Fact Check: Johns Hopkins Student Paper Retracted Because CDC Data DOES Show Excess Deaths Caused By Covid-19" to make the causal link between the retraction and the data clearer.