Just how dire the coronavirus death toll is in the U.S. has been the subject of much debate – and Johns Hopkins University’s student newspaper found itself at the heart of the controversy last week.
The university’s News-Letter published an article that claimed there is ‘no evidence that COVID-19 created any excess deaths on November 22, then retracted and deleted if four days later.
Editorial board members tweeted that the article was taken down because it was being used out of context to spread misinformation about the severity of the pandemic.
The retraction came under fire with accusations of ‘censorship,’ because the controversial article had been taken down altogether.
Johns Hopkins has since published a larger editor’s note, apologizing, explaining not only why the article was problematic, but giving insight into why it was inaccurate.
But the dust-up underscores an ongoing frustration and problem in addressing the pandemic in the U.S.: Nine months in, even scientists struggle to determine what is or isn’t a COVID-19 death, and estimate the real toll of the virus.
The article claimed that there have not been excess deaths due to COVID-19 in the US – but was retracted after it was allegedly used to spread misinformation. The editors later explained that, out of context, the use of percentages of deaths this year created an inaccurate picture of the pandemi
And even the same data can be interpreted in vastly different ways, leaving Americans confused and divided over coronavirus.
At the time of the retraction, the Johns Hopkins News-Letter simply took the article, entitled ‘a closer look at U.S. Deaths due to COVID-19’, down, announcing that it had been deleted, but offering little explanation, via Twitter.
Some social media users and media outlets like Just the News and Retraction Watch accused the News-Letter of censorship after the retraction.
The article focused on the work of Genevieve Briand, a Hopkins researcher and professor, who graphed out total deaths from all causes in the U.S. in 2020 by age group, and compared them to previous years.
From her analysis, Briand, assistant program director of Hopkins’s Applied Economics master’s program, claimed that U.S. deaths in 2020 were on par with deaths in other years.
But – as the News-Letter pointed out in its later editor’s note – Briand focused on the proportion of deaths in each age group in 2020, compared to previous years.
According to the CDC, there were more than 300,000 excess deaths this year between January and September, with a peak of a third more fatalities a week than expected in April
It’s become clear that elderly people are among the most-at risk of dying from COVID-19, while the virus proves fatal for young people relatively rarely.
So, the article argued, it would be expected that older people would make up a higher percentage of all deaths in the US this year, compared to previous ones.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data she compiled, Americans aged 85 and older accounted for 30 percent of deaths each week each week between the week ending in February 1 and the week ending in September 5 of 2020.
In 2018, people 85 and older accounted for 31 percent of all deaths that year, according to the CDC’s own final report on deaths for that year.
The proportions align, and Briand used that to conclude: ‘The reason we have a higher number of reported COVID-19 deaths among older individuals than younger individuals is simply because every day in the U.S. older individuals die in higher numbers than younger individuals.’
Referring to Briand, the article, written by research fellow and neuroscience and German double-major Yahni Gu, also pointed out that the weekly total deaths in 2020 fall between the purportedly expected range of 50,000 and 70,000.
The data, up until that point, showed that 62,374 people were dying a week.
In 2018, CDC’s analysis, which was not completed and published until 2020, showed there were roughly 52,852 deaths a week in total, not accounting for seasonal fluctuations.
The CDC’s own report on deaths between January and September 2020 concluded that there have been nearly 300,000 excess deaths this year, compared to what the national health agency would expect.
Graphs from the report show that the CDC would expect about 60,000 deaths a week, with higher numbers in the winter, and lower tolls in the summer.
During the spring peak of COVID-19 fatalities, about 80,000 Americans died in a week. That’s 20,000 – or about a third – more than would be considered normal.
The claim that there is no evidence of excess deaths from COVID-19, the editors of the News-Letter wrote in their November 27 retraction note, was ‘incorrect and does not take into account the spike in raw death count from all causes compared to previous years.’
They also noted that Briand is ‘neither a medical professional nor a disease researcher.’
‘At her talk, she herself stated that more research and data are needed to understand the effects of COVID-19,’ they wrote.
Many states still have backlogs of death certificates from the coronavirus pandemic. It may be months, or years, before we have a clearer picture of just how many lives were lost to coronavirus in the U.S. and the world at large.
Nevertheless, a lack of transparency has been widely blamed for the global struggle to control the spread of coronavirus, with blame aimed from various sides at the Chinese government, the U.S. government, and the World Health Organization, to name a few.
A week after its initial retraction, the News-Letter apologized for its own lack of transparency.
‘The article should not have been deleted in the first place. Instead of temporarily removing it from our website, The News-Letter should have immediately retracted and provided a detailed explanation of the inaccuracies in Briand’s research, the editors wrote in a Thursday follow-up note.
‘We did not intend to silence Briand; instead, we sought to put her claims in conversation with findings from Hopkins, the World Health Organization and the CDC.’
‘We sincerely apologize for how this article was handled, and we invite continued feedback on our coverage.’
Not everyone was satisfied with the response, including one Twitter user who replied ‘this is a poorly written, and flawed response to an allegedly flawed report.’
They continued: ‘But it’s better than no response. This comes across as trying to placate, rather than actually critique her study. Are her numbers incorrect or do they just challenge the projected models?’
Although the editors addressed accuracy, as data continues to roll in and be interpreted, the answer to that question could shift in either direction.