Fact check: Post detailing COVID deaths under Biden ignores improving trend

The claim: 176,000 people died of COVID-19 during Biden’s first 14 weeks in office

A Facebook post claims more than 176,000 people died from COVID-19 in the United States since President Joe Biden took office on Jan. 20.

The image of Biden masked up with his thumbs up, shared April 28, has already been shared 700 times.

“Over 176,000 in U.S. died from coronavirus Biden’s first 14 weeks in office,” the caption says.

The post by Breitbart News, a self-described conservative news website, links to an April 28 article written by the same organization. The article says “around 176,407 people in the U.S. died due to complications for COVID-19 during Biden’s first 14 weeks” in office, a period ending April 28.

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The article cites Johns Hopkins University for the data. But data from John Hopkins University and from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention differ from what the post claims.

And the post ignores critical context around those numbers.

About 156,000 people died January to April, not 176,000

Between Jan. 20 and April 28, Biden’s first 14 weeks in office, the CDC reported 156,096 new COVID-19 deaths. John Hopkins reported 160,540, since it uses a slightly different methodology. 

The exact number of COVID-19 deaths is almost impossible to track because of a lack of precision when recording them, according to William Schaffner, an infectious diseases professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Schaffner said this is not unique to the pandemic and that it happens with all recorded deaths, regardless of the disease.

But there’s an even more obvious reason this post misses the mark.

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Daily COVID-19 deaths decreased since Biden took office

The Facebook post and Breitbart article report the death tally as if it were happening in a vacuum, without considering what came before. It makes no mention of 2020 or former President Donald Trump.

The resulting implication is that Biden has done something wrong — or failed to do something — that led to these deaths.

Actually, these tallies show a drastic improvement over the preceding months.

While COVID-19 continues to take lives, the seven-day rolling average of daily deaths has been on a constant decrease since Biden’s first day, from 3,094 to 628 on April 28, according to the CDC.

Schaffner said one of the main reasons deaths have decreased since January is the wide availability of vaccines and mask mandates. 

“I think we are on the right track, but we are by no means finished,” Schaffner said.

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Considering the U.S. has been in a pandemic for over a year, the number of deaths is “better than what was projected to be” after the all-time high number of deaths on Jan. 12, said John Swartzberg, an infectious diseases and vaccinology professor emeritus at University of California-Berkeley

“What we’ve seen is the difference between bad governance for the first year of the pandemic, and really good governance this year,” Swartzberg said.

But that’s not to say Biden deserves all the credit for the improving trend since January. Deaths show trends of a situation that happened four to five weeks before, according to Swartzberg. So it shows Biden’s tenure built on improvements that began at the end of Trump’s tenure.

“Even deaths that were happening toward the end of February, were really a reflection of what was happening before the Biden administration took over,” Swartzberg told USA TODAY.

Both experts agreed that the expectations for the number of deaths caused by the disease has never been zero, as the decontextualized numbers in the Breitbart post imply.

Our rating: Missing context 

We rate the claim that 176,000 people died during the first 14 weeks of the Biden administration MISSING CONTEXT, based on our research. Official data shows the number of deaths between Jan. 20 and April 28 was around 156,000, so the number is off. But more notably, it’s not reasonable to discuss the number of deaths since Biden started without considering the state of the pandemic and the trends up to that point. Factoring in that wider context shows deaths steadily decreasing each week as more people get vaccinated.  

Our fact-checking sources:

  • Breitbart, April 28, Over 176,000 in U.S. died from coronavirus Biden’s first 14 weeks in office
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed April 29, Trends in Number of COVID-19 Cases and Deaths in the US Reported to CDC
  • John Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, accessed April 29, Cumulative Deaths in US
  • John Hopkins University COVID-19 GitHub, accessed April 30, COVID-19 Data Repository by CSSE at Johns Hopkins University
  • USA TODAY, Jan. 17, ‘Blood on his hands’: As US surpasses 400,000 COVID-19 deaths, experts blame Trump administrations for a ‘preventable’ loss of life
  • USA TODAY, Feb. 22, ‘A truly heartbreaking milestone’: President Biden honors 500,000 US COVID-19 deaths with moment of silence
  • Interview with William Schaffner, infectious disease professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center
  • Interview with John Swartzberg, infectious diseases and vaccinology professor emeritus at U.C. Berkeley

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Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

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