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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher March 13, 2020

‘Leaked documents’ don’t prove US hospitals preparing for 96 million coronavirus cases

If Your Time is short

  • An infectious disease expert presenting to the American Hospital Association estimated there could be as many as 96 million cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. in a year.

  • He encouraged hospitals to prepare for an outbreak of this magnitude.

  • But there is no indication that hospitals are preparing, covertly, for an outbreak of that magnitude, as this headline suggests.

In a U.S. population of 329 million, is it possible that 96 million of them will suffer COVID-19? Yes, according to an infectious diseases expert who presented a webinar to members of the American Hospitals Association.

But a story being shared on social media ominously refers to "leaked documents" and carries an alarmist headline that makes it sound as though hospitals are secretly preparing for an outbreak of that size:

"U.S. hospitals are preparing for 96 million coronavirus infections and nearly half a million deaths, leaked documents reveal," reads a March 7, 2020, headline on an article from the Daily Mail, a British newspaper.

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

One expert addressing an American Hospital Association webinar estimated there could be 96 million coronavirus cases and 480,000 deaths in the United States.

But there isn’t evidence to indicate that American hospitals are covertly preparing for an outbreak of this magnitude, as the original headline implies. 

What’s been reported

The Daily Mail says the "leaked documents" were obtained by Business Insider. When we contacted the Daily Mail for this fact-check, a spokesman said the headline would be changed. The headline was changed to: "US hospitals should prepare for 96 million coronavirus infections and nearly half a million deaths, leaked documents reveal." That is, "are preparing" was changed to "should," but the leaked documents reference remained.

Business Insider, a U.S.-based news website, also used "leaked" in the headline of its article, which requires a subscription to access. 

Business Insider reported that it obtained slides from a webinar on COVID-19, the disease caused by the current coronavirus, that was hosted by the American Hospital Association on Feb. 26, 2020.

The article said one slide, presented by Dr. James Lawler, an infectious diseases expert and internal medicine professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He is director of international programs and innovation at its Global Center for Health Security. 

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Lawler, who has treated patients infected with the coronavirus who have been evacuated from China, estimated there could be as many 96 million coronavirus cases and 480,000 deaths in the United States. 

"Overall, the slide points out that hospitals should prepare for an impact to the system that's 10 times a severe flu season," the Business Insider story says.

The hospital association confirmed to Business Insider that the slides it reported on were authentic. It said that the information represented the views of the experts who participated, not the association.

The association told us the same thing. It did not respond to our questions about whether hospitals are preparing for coronavirus in the numbers estimated by Lawler.

No other American mainstream news media have reported on the estimates, according to a Nexis search.

Though clearly, with such guidance, hospitals are preparing for a large outbreak. A separate March 7, 2020, story about Lawler’s estimates in another United Kingdom-based newspaper, The Independent, said Lawler "advised hospitals to prepare" for an outbreak of this size. That’s a different tone than is implied by the Daily Mail headline.

"I HOPE hospitals are preparing for this," Lawler told PolitiFact by email. "Word is percolating through groundswell of professional networks as people hear ground truth from Italy, but I am afraid official sources for information are way behind."

Our ruling

The original post said, "U.S. hospitals are preparing for 96 million coronavirus infections and nearly half a million deaths, leaked documents reveal."

One expert estimated at an American Hospital Association webinar that there could be 96 million coronavirus cases and 480,000 deaths in the United States. 

But these supposedly "leaked" documents were slides presented by one epidemiologist during a webinar to members of the American Hospital Association. They don’t represent some official attempt to conceal information, as the original Daily Mail headline, later changed, suggests. They also don’t provide evidence that hospitals are preparing for coronavirus cases in those numbers, though clearly this information is being used as guidance for hospitals’ preparations.

The statement is not accurate. We rate it False.

Our Sources

Daily Mail, "U.S. hospitals are preparing for 96 million coronavirus infections and nearly half a million deaths, leaked documents reveal," March 7, 2020

Business Insider, "A leaked presentation reveals the document US hospitals are using to prepare for a major coronavirus outbreak. It estimates 96 million US coronavirus cases and 480,000 deaths," (subscription) March 6, 2020

Email, Dr. James Lawler, March 10, 2020

Email, American Hospital Association director of media relations Colin Milligan, March 10, 2020


Interview, DailyMail.com chief brand officer Sean Walsh, March 13, 2020

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‘Leaked documents’ don’t prove US hospitals preparing for 96 million coronavirus cases

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