As the United States reported a record increase in the number of coronavirus infections during the middle of July 2020, online reports claimed a decreasing percentage of deaths attributable to the disease meant it would no longer be classified as an epidemic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Snopes readers asked us to investigate these claims, and we found they both misrepresented death-related data and reached incorrect conclusions.
Seeking to downplay the severity of COVID-19, Just the News, a conservative-leaning website, cited the CDC’s COVIDView weekly report — ending on July 4, 2020 — as the source of their claim that the declining numbers of deaths over the previous few weeks suggested that COVID-19 would cease to qualify as an epidemic in the coming weeks. They said the CDC labels an outbreak as an epidemic if: “… the number of deaths attributable to the disease exceeds a certain percentage of total deaths per week.”
But this is not entirely correct.
First, it should be noted that as of this writing (in mid-July 2020), the CDC has made no announcements about COVID-19’s epidemic classification. Second, the prevalence of the disease, not the number of deaths, is considered to be the main indicator of its epidemic status, according to the CDC: “Epidemic refers to an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area.”
Just the News reported:
CDC data indicate that deaths from [pneumonia, influenza, and COVID-19] began skyrocketing in the country around the second week of March, hitting a peak around early May and then plummeting quickly after that.
The latest data show that the percentage of deaths in the country attributable to those factors had as of the last week in June reached its lowest point since the end of last year, becoming “equal to the [current] epidemic threshold of 5.9%,” the CDC said.
The agency notes that the official tally of deaths “will likely change as more death certificates are processed, particularly for recent weeks.” Yet the number of deaths attributable to COVID-19, pneumonia and influenza have been declining for 10 straight weeks, the agency said on its website, suggesting COVID-19 may cease to qualify as an epidemic in the next few weeks.
The CDC data for the week ending July 4 did indeed state that the percentage of deaths attributed to pneumonia, influenza, or COVID-19 — also known as PIC — based on current death certificate data, “decreased from 6.9% during week 26 to 5.5% during week 27, representing the eleventh week of a declining percentage of deaths.”
Snopes asked the CDC what they meant by an “epidemic threshold,” and if this data was accurate. CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund told us:
The “epidemic threshold” refers to the point at which the observed proportion of deaths is significantly higher than would be expected at that time of the year in the absence of substantial influenza, and now COVID-related mortality. This “epidemic threshold” wording only refers to deaths related to COVID-19, which are a lagging indicator of disease activity. The death data is also something that gets filled in as more data – in this case death certificates – are added.
This one piece of data doesn’t have bearing on whether COVID-19 is still an epidemic.
In summary, the current death data was not completely reliable, nor did it determine COVID-19’s classification as an epidemic.
Nordlund emphasized to Snopes that death data lagged behind data for testing and cases, and was incomplete for recent weeks. The number of deaths would likely increase once more data was collected.
While Just the News acknowledged that the data could change, they ignored that in the same report where the CDC stated: “Mortality attributed to COVID-19 decreased compared to last week and is currently at the epidemic threshold but will likely increase as additional death certificates are processed.”
Even though these claims cite CDC data, they fail to acknowledge the CDC’s own caveat that this data is incomplete. Furthermore, this data alone has no bearing on whether COVID-19 is classified as an epidemic. We therefore rate this claim as “False.”