Learn To Science, People! Coronavirus Deaths Are Not Overcounted, And It’s Way Worse Than The Flu

(Photo by David Lat)

It’s just the nature of reality that large swaths of people are going to deny the nature of reality. But, as some of my more reasonable friends keep reminding me, many of these people are not irredeemably lost. They’re just misinformed.

So, I’m going to try to correct some of that in response to two very bad arguments against taking COVID-19 seriously that I’ve still been hearing lately.

COVID-19 Is No Worse Than The Flu

To be fair, this was a hell of a persuasive argument back in March. Of course, in mid-March, only about 60 Americans had died of COVID-19, and while a lot of people were warning that a far higher number of deaths was coming, the modeling at the time was all over the place. Some models were indeed predicting a death toll within the range of a bad flu season. I, myself, speculated that perhaps the lifesaving effects of a slowing economy would outweigh the deaths caused by coronavirus, in terms of immediate mortality alone, anyway. (I was wrong about that.)

The CDC estimates the annual number of influenza deaths using mathematical modeling and collaboration with state and local health departments in 13 geographically representative areas in the United States. That doesn’t give an exact number of flu deaths in a given season, but it gets pretty close. During the worst flu season of the past decade or so, the CDC estimated that the upper end of the possible range was 79,000 deaths. In contrast, the least damaging flu season in that period resulted in about 12,000 deaths in this country.

As I’m writing this, the United States coronavirus death toll is at 129,882, according to Reuters. The official death toll will likely be at more like 133,000 by the time this article goes to print. Obviously, that makes this pandemic far worse than the deadliest flu season in recent memory, and more than 10 times worse than the least bad flu season in recent memory. And coronavirus deaths on a large scale in the U.S. didn’t even start until mid-March — we’re not even four months in. While we don’t know reliably what the death rate for COVID-19 is yet, almost all credible research conducted so far suggests it is much higher than that of the seasonal flu. By six months into this pandemic, we will have lost at least twice as many Americans as we did in the worst flu season in recent memory. Remember, that’s with social distancing, lockdowns, and mask-wearing going on to some degree or another during most of that six months too. It’s worse than the flu.

But They’re Overcounting Coronavirus Deaths

Nope. Actually, coronavirus deaths are probably being underreported, and it’s fairly straightforward to demonstrate that numerically.

Figuring out the cause of death to put on a death certificate has never been an exact science. Since most people do not get autopsies, the cause of death on most people’s death certificates represents more of an educated guess by a medical professional. For many people counted in the coronavirus death toll, their causes of death are educated guesses by medical professionals.

But it’s looking quite clear that those educated guesses are undercounting, not overcounting, coronavirus deaths. How many people die in a “normal” year is known, and scientists can use that data to predict, within a reasonable range, how many people are expected to die in a subsequent year absent some special circumstance leading to excess mortality. A new study from Yale found that from March 1 through May 30 of this year about 122,300 more deaths happened in America than would normally be expected. You can look at the CDC data yourself and see that there were periods this spring when there were close to 20,000 more deaths per week than expected (you can also see this phenomenon in the data, on a much smaller scale, over the 2017-18 winter, which was that particularly bad flu season I was talking about earlier). The excess 2020 deaths are occurring despite deaths from other causes, like motor vehicle accidents, being down. (I was right on that prediction, at least.) Something’s caused six figures more of us to die this year than would be otherwise expected. There’s no other explanation for these deaths, and the medical professionals whose job it is to judge what’s killing people think it’s the coronavirus and there’s pretty solid evidence.

So, if you have family members or coworkers who are still saying coronavirus is no worse than the flu, or that officials are overcounting coronavirus deaths, well, they’re demonstrably wrong. Maybe share this article with them and hope they’re the kind of people who are capable of changing their minds when presented with evidence. Admitting when you are wrong is wisdom, not weakness.

Jonathan Wolf is a litigation associate at a midsize, full-service Minnesota firm. He also teaches as an adjunct writing professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, has written for a wide variety of publications, and makes it both his business and his pleasure to be financially and scientifically literate. Any views he expresses are probably pure gold, but are nonetheless solely his own and should not be attributed to any organization with which he is affiliated. He wouldn’t want to share the credit anyway. He can be reached at