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Two years ago, the CDC initially reported 80,000 deaths during the 2017-18 influenza season, the most in four decades
The CDC later revised its estimate down to 61,000 deaths for that season, though news headlines still include the higher figure
Last year, the CDC reported 34,000 deaths for the 2018-19 influenza season
Republican Congressman Tom McClintock has expressed a lot of skepticism over the threat of COVID-19. He’s also described stay-at-home orders intended to slow the novel coronavirus as "profoundly un-American."
"The more data we receive, the more questions come up over this policy, including how severe is this disease actually?" McClintock, who represents a large swath of rural California east of Sacramento, said on CapRadio’s Insight program on April 29. "Does it justify destroying the jobs of millions of Californians? How many poverty-related deaths have we set into motion by plunging Californians into unemployment?"
McClintock then claimed: "The flu killed 80,000 Americans last year according to the CDC."
Similar statements about the flu are circulating on social media, in apparent efforts to downplay or question the threat of COVID-19.
There’s a lot that’s still unknown about the coronavirus, and plenty of time to judge whether California’s actions helped or not. But the data on how many Americans died from the flu is pretty clear.
We decided to take a look and fact check McClintock’s claim.
A spokesperson for McClintock initially pointed to a September 2018 Associated Press article headlined "CDC: 80,000 people died of flu last winter in U.S., highest death toll in 40 years."
The article cited Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as the source of the information. It described the disease’s death toll as the highest in at least four decades.
That total referred to the 2017-18 influenza season, which was two years ago. Notably, the CDC revised it down to 61,000 deaths, though many news articles still have the now out-dated 80,000 figure in their headlines.
The CDC explained on its website the lower number is "based on more recently available information," and said there’s "a trade-off between timeliness and accuracy," when it publishes its initial estimates.
Last year, the CDC tallied 34,000 deaths during the 2018-19 influenza season, nowhere near McClintock’s figure.
McClintock's spokesperson said the congressman, at the time he made his statement, had not noticed the date of the news article. She said "it has since been brought to his attention that the CDC later revised its number to 61,000."
In early March, PolitiFact National spoke with infectious disease experts who cautioned against comparing the flu and COVID-19. McClintock’s claim about flu deaths suggests he believes the coronavirus threat is overblown.
"The prevalence of flu is higher at this moment in time," said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security, in the March 10 article. "[But] pound for pound, if you had both viruses, the one that’s more likely to make you die is the coronavirus."
Experts told PolitiFact in early May that COVID-19 still appears more lethal than the seasonal flu, noting that infection fatality rates that may seem small can lead to mounting death tolls.
As of May 5, COVID-19 had killed 70,847 Americans, according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracker.
Rep. Tom McClintock claimed "the flu killed 80,000 Americans last year, according to the CDC."
In reality, 34,000 Americans died of the flu during the 2018-19 influenza season, according to the federal agency. McClintock said he relied on a 2018 news article, which cited the CDC’s initial estimate of 80,000 deaths for the 2017-18 influenza season, a figure the agency later revised down to 61,000 deaths. The outdated figure remains in many 2018 news headlines.
In the end, the congressman cited the wrong year and failed to note that a significant downward revision had been made, making his claim misleading at best.
We rate McClintock’s claim Mostly False.
MOSTLY FALSE – The statement contains some element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.
Rep. Tom McClintock, interview on CapRadio Insight, April 29, 2020
Rep. Tom McClintock, Quarantine and a Free Society, April 28, 2020
Associated Press, CDC: 80,000 people died of flu last winter in U.S., highest death toll in 40 years, Sept. 26, 2018
U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 2018–2019 influenza season data, accessed May 2020
U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 2017-18 influenza season data, accessed May 2020
Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracker, accessed May 2020
Lead Stories, Fact Check: The Flu Did NOT Kill 80,000 People In the United States Last Year, April 30, 2020
PolitiFact, Tucker Carlson says coronavirus isn’t as deadly as we thought. Experts disagree, May 4, 2020
PolitiFact, Are you more likely to die from the flu than coronavirus? It’s complicated, March 10, 2020
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