CDC Lowers COVID-19 Death Count By More Than 72,000

The agency provided a footnote acknowledging the change.
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 2: A model of COVID-19, known as coronavirus, is seen ahead of testimony from Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), during a US Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the plan to research, manufacture and distribute a coronavirus vaccine, known as Operation Warp Speed, July 2, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lowered the total COVID-19 death count by more than 72,000 last week.

The reduction included around 24 percent of pediatric deaths listed as COVID-related. Specifically, the algorithm overcounted COVID deaths by 72,277 across 26 states, including 416 pediatric deaths.

The agency provided a footnote acknowledging the change but did not offer many details in its explanation. The footnote said that on March 15, the data was adjusted due to a quote “coding logic error” that resulted in a lower death count across all demographics.

The CDC also noted that some jurisdictions also include probable COVID-19 cases in their death count and that back in August the data on COVID-19 deaths was changed after a data discrepancy was identified. The agency did not provide details in the footnote on how that mistake occurred either.

The CDC’s updated overall COVID death count stands at nearly 969,000. The change was about 7.5 percent, a significant drop given the total hovers around close to a million deaths.

The huge change in the pediatric death count drops the estimate of total COVID-19 deaths in children down to 1,341 nationwide. Children were about 19 percent of all COVID-19 cases, but only about a quarter of a percent of those cases were fatal, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Several states have previously changed their virus death tolls significantly since the start of the pandemic.

Last month, Massachusetts dropped its COVID-19 death count by 3,700 after adopting new criteria.

Another state to revise its numbers was New York. However, in that case, New York increased its count of total nursing home deaths due to the virus. An investigation by the New York attorney general found that the state may have undercounted nursing home deaths due to COVID-19 by as much as 50%. That issue was a significant political blow to then-governor Andrew Cuomo.

In a letter last week, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky referenced the “Data Modernization Initiative,” the CDC’s plan to make its data more accurate. The effort appears to be the direct result of pressure from lawmakers and media for the agency to report pandemic data more accurately.

The CDC’s current standards still do not clearly differentiate between patients who died with COVID-19 as opposed to those who died as a result of COVID-19 or the degree to which the virus contributed to any given death. If the agency’s data reporting were to get more granular on those differences, the result could be another downward revision of total COVID-19 death numbers.

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