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In this Feb. 7, 2018 file photo, a nurse prepares a flu shot at the Salvation Army in Atlanta. (AP) In this Feb. 7, 2018 file photo, a nurse prepares a flu shot at the Salvation Army in Atlanta. (AP)

In this Feb. 7, 2018 file photo, a nurse prepares a flu shot at the Salvation Army in Atlanta. (AP)

Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman May 6, 2020

Facebook post exaggerates seasonal flu deaths for last year

If Your Time is short

  • The CDC’s estimate for seasonal flu deaths for the 2017-18 season was about 61,000.

  • The CDC’s preliminary estimate for seasonal flu deaths for the 2018-19 season is about 34,200, but that’s not the final number.

With a climbing death toll from COVID-19 grabbing daily headlines, some social media users have noted that the seasonal flu kills tens of thousands per year, too.

But an April 18 Facebook post exaggerates seasonal flu fatalities: 

"Flu killed 80k people in the U.S. last year. None of you were afraid because the media didn’t tell you to be!" 

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

The post appears to rely on a number used as a preliminary estimate for the 2017-18 flu season. The final figure for that year was lower than 80,000. And while the number of people who died from flu during the 2018-19 season is still preliminary, it is estimated to be less than half of what the Facebook post claims as well.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses a mathematical model to retroactively estimate the numbers of influenza illnesses, medical visits, hospitalizations, and deaths in the United States each year. The CDC first looks at in-hospital deaths and then uses death certificate data since not all flu deaths are in the hospital.

That 80,000 figure stems from a preliminary estimate provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September 2018. At that time, the CDC said early estimates indicated that "more than 80,000 people died from flu last season" — a reference to the 2017-18 flu season.

The CDC later updated its estimate for 2017-18 to about 61,000 (though the CDC notes that the true range could be as low as 46,404 and as high as 94,987).

The estimate for flu deaths for the following year, 2018-19, is 34,157 deaths, but that number is preliminary and will be updated at a later date when data on contemporary testing practices become available, a CDC spokesman told PolitiFact.

The Atlantic explained that seasonal flu deaths are hard to tally. 

"Flu deaths are estimated through a model that looks at hospitalizations and death certificates, and accounts for the possibility that many deaths are due to flu but aren’t coded as such," The Atlantic wrote. "If flu deaths were counted like COVID-19 deaths, the number would be substantially lower. This doesn’t mean we’re overestimating the flu. It does mean we are probably underestimating COVID-19."

RELATED: Too soon to compare number of COVID deaths to past outbreaks

Our ruling

A Facebook post said that "flu killed 80k people in the U.S. last year." 

Flu deaths are hard to tally. But we know that in September 2018, the CDC announced a preliminary estimate that flu deaths totaled 80,000. Later, the CDC updated its estimate to a lower number: 61,099 deaths.

The Facebook post said "last year" which we think would refer to the 2018-19 season. The CDC’s preliminary estimate is about 34,157 deaths.

We rate this claim Mostly False.

Our Sources

Facebook post, April 18, 2020

USA Today, Fact Check: CDC has not stopped reporting flu deaths, and this season's numbers are typical, April 30, 2020

Associated Press, CDC: 80,000 people died of flu last winter in U.S., highest death toll in 40 years

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Press Conference Kicks Off 2018-2019 Flu Vaccination Campaign, 2018

AP, 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 and Prevention, How CDC Estimates the Burden of Seasonal Influenza in the U.S., Accessed May 4, 2020

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Estimated Influenza Illnesses, Medical visits, Hospitalizations, and Deaths in the United States — 2018–2019 influenza season

The Greenville Sun, Seasonal Flu Cases On The Rise Nationwide, Experts Warn, Dec. 11, 2017

Dallas Morning News, Flu season could be among worst, Dec. 21, 2017

The Daily Herald (Everett, Washington) This could be particularly nasty flu season, experts predict, Dec. 22, 2017

Reuters, Seasonal flu kills more globally than previously thought: U.S. study, Dec. 13, 2017

Cleveland Plain Dealer, Flu season is worse than last year’s Health, Jan. 14, 2018

The Atlantic, Why the Coronavirus Is So Confusing, April 29, 2020

Email interview, Mike Patronik, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokesman, May 1, 2020

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Facebook post exaggerates seasonal flu deaths for last year

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