Death Toll Conspiracy: Why Conservative Media—And Soon, Possibly Trump—Are Doubting Coronavirus Mortality Figures

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Matt Perez   Forbes U.S. Staff

President Donald Trump

Photo : The White House Twitter 

A growing number of conservatives (especially fringe sites like Alex Jones’ Infowars) are embracing a conspiracy that government-approved death tolls are inflated for various political reasons—and some reports suggest President Trump will soon endorse the murky theory as well. Here’s how it began:


March 30, 2020

Fox News personalities Lynette "Diamond" Hardaway and Rochelle "Silk" Richardson attempt to link Trump's hopes to reopen the country by Easter with an increase in coronavirus deaths in the United States. "Now watch the numbers of deaths go up...because they want to make it look bad," says Richardson.

April 1, 2020

Brit Hume, a longtime senior Fox News analyst, tweets a thread from an unverified Twitter account, and uses it to claim "NY's COVID-19 fatality numbers are inflated,” because, “They don't distinguish between those who die with the disease and those who die from it,” prompting him to be roundly mocked on Twitter, with many accusing him of misreading the data.

April 5, 2020

The Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists recommends to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that it should count both deaths from patients confirmed to have the coronavirus as well as "probable" cases, or individuals who died without being tested, which sparks more conspiracies that the numbers are inflated.

April 7, 2020

Hume joins Fox News host Tucker Carlson in arguing death counts were being exaggerated, with Carlson citing a lower number of pneumonia deaths reported by the CDC as proof that these were being classified as coronavirus fatalities and that "this epidemic is being credited for thousands of deaths that would have occurred if the virus never appeared here"—but the CDC notes that that data is incomplete for weeks, with around 75% reported in 2015 after 8 weeks, and as pointed out by the Washington Post, pneumonia deaths have recently shot up with the rolling data. 

April 7, 2020

Dr. Scott Jensen, a Republican state senator in Minnesota, appears on a conservative, North Dakota-based television show to criticize the state's Department of Health guidelines on reporting deaths from the virus, also using pneumonia as an example. The shows host Chris Berg tweets "SHOCKING...Why is #MN inflating COVID-19 death numbers?"

April 7, 2020

For his part, Trump says during a briefing, "I think they're pretty accurate on the death count."

April 8, 2020

Asked about the theories, both Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci of the White House coronavirus task force say they were without merit, with Fauci adding, "You will always have conspiracy theories when you have very challenging public health crises."

April 8, 2020

Scott Jensen joins Laura Ingraham's Fox News show to call the CDC's guidelines "ridiculous" while floating the theory that some hospitals could take advantage of a Medicare bonus for treating coronavirus patients. 

April 14, 2020

Following the recommendations of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, the CDC requests states begin to include probable cases of the coronavirus in its reports, and the changes lead to an additional 3,700 reported deaths in New York City.

April 15, 2020

Trump suddenly bristles at the higher death toll in the U.S. because of the new counting method, saying, "I see this morning where New York added 3,000 [sic] deaths because they died, and they're not saying—rather than, 'It was a heart attack’—they're saying, 'It was a heart attack caused by this,’ so they're adding.”

April 15, 2020

A spokesperson for New York City mayor Bill de Blasio responds to Trump's remarks by saying, "These were people with names, hobbies, lives. They leave behind grieving loved ones. They deserve to be recognized, not minimized.”

April 18, 2020

"When the fake news gets out there and they start talking about the United States is number one—but we’re not number one [in death totals], China is number one," Trump says during a briefing, and when Birx compares death toll rates between different countries, Trump angrily interjects to doubt numbers from China and Iran: "Does anybody believe this number?”

April 23, 2020

In a seeming reversal during a briefing, Trump uses New York's tally as a means to demonstrate that people could trust the U.S. death figure. "We are very accurate in the reporting of numbers. In fact, I’ll go a step further. As you know, in New York, they actually added quite a few deaths to a list that was done in New York. And they added a number of deaths. We’re very, very, highly accurate."

April 26, 2020

Trump retweets John Cardillo, a video anchor with the right-wing Newsmax, who lists "three failed coup attempts," including "Mueller's sham" and "illegitimate impeachment," adding: "Do you really think these lunatics wouldn't inflate the mortality rates by underreporting the infection rates in an attempt to steal the election?"

April 27, 2020

When asked that if he believed in the conspiracy theory during a briefing, Trump continues to doubt other countries' counts, but says, "I can only say what we’re doing. It’s very important to us to do very accurate reporting, and that’s what we’re doing."

May 2, 2020

Tim Young, a columnist for the right-leaning Washington Times, tweets out, "Did I read this wrong or did the CDC just revised [sic] the national COVID-19 deaths to 37,308?!?!". He did read the data wrong, as the provisional figure was based on death certificates, which the agency says are "delayed and may differ from other published sources”—but it launches another round of conspiracy chatter. 

May 3, 2020

Despite the inaccuracy, Laura Ingraham tweets a story on the claim, writing, "What’s the explanation here? 'New CDC Coronavirus Data Cuts American Death Toll Nearly In HALF.'"

May 4, 2020

Then, former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka picks up the false claim, saying, "The Chinese virus is not nearly as deadly as originally believed.” 

May 5, 2020

As deaths push past 60,000—what Trump had at one point suggested may be the final total—the president balks at new estimates that the toll could reach 135,000 by the start of August, telling ABC, "These models have been so wrong from day one" (echoing comments on Fox News, like from host Brian Kilmeade who said, "One thing is pretty certain, the models that we have been told to deal with have consistently been wrong”).

May 6, 2020

Axios reports Trump and top aides were internally questioning how coronavirus deaths were being calculated and that they were concerned the higher totals “damages him politically.” One senior administration official predicted Trump would begin publicly pushing back on the totals. 

May 6, 2020

Trump is asked if he believes the death toll figures, and says he continues to doubt the lower counts from other countries but says, "Our numbers are essentially certified numbers. They're individual hospitals, they're putting out the numbers, I don't imagine there'd be a very big variation." 


“We definitely think there are deaths that we have not accounted for,” Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, told the New York Times.


Last month, the CDC issued new guidelines on reporting coronavirus-related deaths, saying, "In cases where a definite diagnosis of COVID-19 cannot be made, but it is suspected or is acceptable to report COVID-19 on a death certificate as 'probable' or 'presumed.' In these instances, certifiers should use their best clinical judgement in determining if a COVID-19 infection was likely." A lack of testing presumably made the change necessary—deaths were only being reported after a patient tested positive, discounting many who were never able to get testing and still cannot.

There's also the case of excess deaths in many countries. The Times reported that the overall average number of deaths in many countries—not just including coronavirus cases—has been higher than normal, illustrating that potentially tens of thousands of fatalities are not being counted in the coronavirus death toll due to lack of information.


40%. That's how many Republican voters believe the death count is overreported, according to an Ipsos/Axios survey released on May 5. On the opposite end, 63% of Democrats and 45% of Independents believe that the count is underreported. Overall, a majority of Americans believe the count isn't entirely accurate, but 44% are of the opinion that it's lower than reality.

Author image

Matt Perez   Forbes U.S. Staff

I cover breaking news and also report on the video game industry. I previously wrote for sites like IGN, Polygon, Red Bull eSports, Kill Screen, Playboy and PC Gamer. I also managed a YouTube gaming channel under the name strummerdood. I graduated with a BA in journalism from Rowan University and interned at Philadelphia Magazine.