Fact Check

Did 1 in 500 US Residents Die From COVID-19 by September 2021?

A total of nearly 664,000 people were lost to the virus in the United States by Sept. 14, 2021.

Published Sep 14, 2021

Empty hospital bed (Dana Neely/Getty Images)
Empty hospital bed (Image Via Dana Neely/Getty Images)
By September 2021, one COVID-19 death had taken place for every 500 people living in the United States.

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In September 2021, CNN reported that the United States had reached a bleak statistical milestone in the COVID-19 pandemic: As of Sept. 14, 2021, one in every 500 U.S. residents had died from the virus since the first recorded fatalities in early 2020. The network reported that:

The United States has reached another grim milestone in its fight against the devastating Covid-19 pandemic: 1 in 500 Americans have died from coronavirus since the nation's first reported infection.

As of Tuesday night, 663,913 people in the US have died of Covid-19, according to Johns Hopkins University. According to the US Census Bureau, the US population as of April 2020 was 331.4 million.

It's a sobering toll that comes as hospitals in the US are struggling to keep up with the volume of patients and more children are grappling with the virus. In hopes of managing the spread and preventing more unnecessary deaths, officials are implementing mandates for vaccinations in workplaces and masking in schools.

CNN's extrapolation was based on the best official figures available at the time, and although there was a small degree of imprecision in the numbers, a COVID-19 death rate of one death for every 500 people would inevitably be achieved, if not by Sept. 14 itself, then within a matter of a few days. The substantive point of CNN's article was therefore accurate, and we are issuing a rating of "True."

On Sept. 14, Johns Hopkins did indeed report that a cumulative total of almost 664,000 people had died of COVID-19 in the United States. By the morning of Sept. 15, the figure had risen by 50, to 663,963, as shown below:

As CNN correctly reported, the most up-to-date official estimates from the 2020 census — published in August 2021 — showed that the population of the United States in 2020 was estimated to be 331.4 million (331,449,281 to be precise). Those figures — 663,913 deaths in a population of 331.4 million — yield a fatality rate of one COVID-19 death for every 499 people, which is actually a slightly worse death rate than the one in 500 reported by CNN.

However, the U.S. population is highly like to have grown between the 2020 census and September 2021. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's population ticker, the total number of people living in the U.S. on Sept. 15, 2021, was estimated to be around 332.7 million:

Based on that number, and the slightly increased COVID-19 death total reported by Johns Hopkins on the morning of Sept. 15, the estimated fatality rate was one COVID-19 death for every 501 people — again, almost exactly the rate claimed by CNN.

Furthermore, in the days leading up to Sept. 14, the U.S. was adding an average of around 1,200 new COVID-19 deaths per day. Extrapolating roughly from that rate of increase, and the Census Bureau's estimated rate of increase in the overall population (one person added every 25 seconds, or 3,456 added each day), then the U.S. would reach the grim milestone of one COVID-19 death for every 500 people by Sept. 17 or 18. 

If the average number of new COVID-19 deaths per day is 1,000, then the milestone would be reached by Sept. 18 or 19. If the average daily increase in COVID-19 deaths is 1,500, then the "one in 500" milestone would be hit even sooner, by Sept. 16 or 17. 

In conclusion, based on the most up-to-date figures available, the U.S. was bound to reach the milestone of one COVID-19 death for every 500 people, within a few days of Sept. 14, when CNN published its report to that effect. The network's substantive claim was therefore accurate, and we are issuing a rating of "True."

Bureau, US Census. “U.S. Adult Population Grew Faster Than Nation’s Total Population From 2010 to 2020.” The United States Census Bureau, https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2021/08/united-states-adult-population-grew-faster-than-nations-total-population-from-2010-to-2020.html. Accessed 15 Sept. 2021.
CDC. “COVID Data Tracker.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 28 Mar. 2020, https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker.
CNN, Madeline Holcombe. “1 in 500 US Residents Has Died of Covid-19.” CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2021/09/15/health/us-coronavirus-wednesday/index.html. Accessed 15 Sept. 2021.
“COVID-19 Map.” Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html. Accessed 15 Sept. 2021.

Dan Mac Guill is a former writer for Snopes.

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