Fact Check: More People ARE Dying In Their Prime Of Life, But Q3 2019 Comparisons Mislead; Also, COVID Causes Rise

Fact Check

  • by: Dean Miller
Fact Check: More People ARE Dying In Their Prime Of Life, But Q3 2019 Comparisons Mislead; Also, COVID Causes Rise Apple ≠ Orange

Did the death rate of working-age Americans rise 40 percent from the summer of 2019 to the summer of 2021? Yes, there has been a sharp rise. Is the COVID-19 pandemic not the cause? There is no basis to blame it on anything other than the pandemic.

The simple comparison of summer 2019 to summer 2021 does not account for consequential variables and therefore inflates the rise in the death rate, according to the nation's mortality statistics expert. Multiple peer-reviewed studies of mortality data by expert statisticians have resulted in a consensus view that COVID is to blame for more than 939,064 U.S. deaths as of February 23, 2022.

The statement about a 40 percent rise, made by an Indiana insurance executive, has been used on social media to make various claims about death rates and COVID, including this February 8, 2022 Facebook post (archived here) under the title "It's not from the C-." It opens:

We are seeing, right now, the highest death rates we have seen in the history of this business - not just at OneAmerica...40% is just unheard of.
Scott Davidson ONEAMERICA CEO

This is what the post looked like on Facebook at the time of writing:

Lightner.JPGFacebook screenshot

(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Wed Feb 23 17:32:07 2022 UTC)

The summer-to-summer comparison is misleading, wrote Robert N. Anderson, Ph.D., chief of the mortality statistics branch at the National Center for Health Statistics, in a February 23, 2022, email to Lead Stories. "The increase for working age decedents (ages 18-64) for those time periods is indeed a little more than 40%," he wrote. "So, OneAmerica's CEO was essentially correct." But deaths in the U.S. follow a seasonal pattern, rising in the winter and falling to their lowest rate in summer, he pointed out.

Comparing what used to be the low ebb to a year when COVID disrupted the longstanding pattern inflates the change in death rate, Anderson wrote:

The statement as is on the Facebook page is incomplete and a bit misleading. What is missing from the Facebook post is that when the CEO of OneAmerica made this statement (in late 2021), he was comparing deaths in the 3rd quarter (July-September) of 2021 with deaths during the same months in 2019 ...

it is important to note that what is being compared in this case is a time period in 2019 where deaths were at a nadir (deaths typically follow a seasonal pattern with deaths highest in the winter and lowest in the summer) with deaths during the COVID Delta wave. When we look at the trend for the entire time period, i.e., including all months from 2019-2021, the increase for those 18-64 from 2019 to 2021 is a bit lower - but still quite large - about 31%.

Anderson has debunked multiple claims that something other than COVID is driving what is known as "excess deaths." That's a term mortality statistics experts have used to describe any deviation from the predicted number of deaths in any given year. Vital statistics teams look at the long-term average death rates for the U.S. population and cast a prediction forward, based on current year population count.

As of February 23, 2022, the Johns Hopkins University repository of statistics about COVID indicates the COVID pandemic appears to have caused 939,064 more deaths than would have been expected if no dangerous viral infection were active.

As Anderson has previously explained, mortality data are the compiled results of vital statistics data compiled independently by each state. In a December 8, 2020, email to Lead Stories addressing similar COVID pandemic denialism, he said those who claim COVID isn't the cause of major rises in unexpected death are ignoring the system that generates the data:

These data are based on death certificates registered in the 50 states, New York City and the District of Columbia (see https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/covid-19.htm). Death certificate data for other countries also show large numbers of excess deaths (see https://www.euromomo.eu/graphs-and-maps).

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Lead Stories is working with the CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 fact-checkers who are fighting misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about the alliance here.


  Dean Miller

Lead Stories Managing Editor Dean Miller has edited daily and weekly newspapers, worked as a reporter for more than a decade and is co-author of two non-fiction books. After a Harvard Nieman Fellowship, he served as Director of Stony Brook University's Center for News Literacy for six years, then as Senior Vice President/Content at Connecticut Public Broadcasting. Most recently, he wrote the twice-weekly "Save the Free Press" column for The Seattle Times. 

Read more about or contact Dean Miller

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