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Bill McCarthy
By Bill McCarthy May 7, 2020

Facebook post cites doctors’ widely disputed calculations on COVID-19 death rate

If Your Time is short

  • Two doctors from Bakersfield, California, called for an end to statewide shutdowns and said testing data showed the infection fatality rate in California to be 0.03%.

  • Experts said their calculations were faulty because the data they used to extrapolate to the entire state was "not representative of the state of California." 

  • Video of their press conference was removed from YouTube. Leading medical associations "emphatically condemn(ed)" their findings in a statement.

A call from two California doctors to end statewide shutdowns gained national attention in April, and the eye-popping claims they made about COVID-19’s death rate — while widely disputed by public health experts — are still spreading on Facebook.

"So 2 doctors from Bakersfield discover that coronavirus mortality rate is 0.03%," the April 28 Facebook post said. "13x less deadly than what was previously thought! Their analysis has since been banned from YouTube! Wow!"

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.)

But the doctors, owners of Accelerated Urgent Care in Bakersfield, Calif., did not prove the mortality rate for COVID-19 patients is 0.03%. 

They pitched a theory that experts said was based on faulty calculations and leading medical associations "emphatically condemn(ed)" as "reckless and untested musings."

Precise fatality rates for any new disease are tough to pin down, especially early in a pandemic. Many mild COVID-19 cases go unreported, making it hard to estimate how many infected individuals have died. Plus, the death toll due to COVID-19 could be higher than we know.

Nevertheless, the way the doctors made their calculations was problematic, experts said.

What the Bakersfield doctors said

The Bakersfield doctors used the infection rate among patients tested at their clinics and in California to extrapolate to the entire state and put the fatality rate for infected individuals at 0.03%. They made the claims in an April 22 press conference broadcast by local news.

They said 340 of the 5,213 patients they had tested at their clinics had returned positive results, meaning roughly 6.5% had COVID-19. On the state level, testing data from April 21 showed roughly 12% of tests coming back positive, they said.

Scaling out to the entire state’s population, they estimated that 4.7 million Californians had been infected — 12% of the state’s total population of roughly 39.5 million people. They used that and the known number of California deaths at the time to get a fatality rate of 0.03%. 

Dr. Dan Erickson, one of the physicians, said the data showed "millions of cases, small amount of death," adding that the fatality rate was close to that for the flu, which hovers under 0.1%.

The doctors found a receptive audience in Fox News hosts Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson. 

Ingraham interviewed them on her show, and Carlson hyped their findings before claiming, in a statement experts said was misguided, that the coronavirus "just isn’t nearly as deadly as we thought." Tesla CEO Elon Musk also shared the briefing on Twitter.

The doctors did not respond to requests for comment sent through their website.

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Shaky math

The doctors’ press conference made waves on social media. But soon after it aired, the calculations supporting their push to end shutdowns were roundly disputed.

YouTube removed the video from its platform, citing a community guidelines violation. The American College of Emergency Physicians and the American Academy of Emergency Medicine "emphatically condemn(ed)" the doctors’ opinions in a statement.

"The data cited by Drs. Erickson and Massihi is extrapolated from a small population to the state of California, resulting in misleading conclusions regarding the mortality of COVID-19. Their data is flawed and represents selection bias," the statement said.

The University of Washington’s Carl T. Bergstrom wrote on Twitter that the doctors’ calculations amounted to "sampling bias" because patients seeking tests likely think they’re sick. 

The doctors’ calculations are like "estimating the average height of Americans from the players on an NBA court," he said.

"Those are most likely people who had been symptomatic or had a reason to be tested," said Thomas Novotny, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at San Diego State University’s School of Public Health. "That’s not representative of the state of California."

Testing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have encouraged health care providers to prioritize patients with symptoms, Novotny noted.

The doctors’ comparison of the 0.03% rate they calculated with the flu’s mortality rate was also misleading, Novotny said. The first is "a temporal estimate for what’s going on with COVID," he said, while the second is "reported every year retrospectively." 

"That’s something that’s not comparable," he said.

Some of the first widely reported figures have been case fatality rates, which are calculated as the number of known deaths divided by the number of confirmed cases. But case fatality rates don’t reflect the true count of infections, experts say.

Tests for antibodies in the blood of people exposed to the coronavirus have offered early glimpses at the fatality rates for all infected individuals in certain geographic areas, although concerns about false positive results have led some experts to question the findings.

One thing we can say for sure? The Bakersfield doctors didn’t "discover that coronavirus mortality rate is 0.03%," as the Facebook post claimed. They made an estimate, and experts said that estimate was flawed.

Our ruling

A Facebook post said: "So 2 doctors from Bakersfield discover that coronavirus mortality rate is 0.03%. 13x less deadly than what was previously thought! Their analysis has since been banned from YouTube."

The Bakersfield doctors used testing data to argue that the death rate for COVID-19 infections is 0.03%. Their conclusions were disputed by experts and leading medical associations.

The video was removed by YouTube, according to reports.

We rate this statement Mostly False.

Our Sources

Facebook posts, April 28, 2020

Lead Stories, "Fact Check: Coronavirus Mortality Rate NOT Proven To Be 0.03% By Bakersfield Doctors," April 30, 2020

NBC News, "YouTube, Facebook split on removal of doctors' viral coronavirus videos," April 29, 2020

CNN, "Dubious coronavirus claims by California doctors condemned by health experts," April 29, 2020

The Mercury News, "Cue the debunking: Two California doctors go viral with dubious COVID test conclusions," April 28, 2020

Fox News, "California urgent care doctor questions stay-at-home orders: 'You can get to herd immunity without a vaccine,'" April 28, 2020

American College of Emergency Physicians, "ACEP-AAEM Joint Statement on Physician Misinformation," April 27, 2020

Fox News on YouTube, "Tucker: Are coronavirus lockdowns working?" April 27, 2020, "Local doctors' assertions on COVID-19 make waves on social media, attract national attention," April 27, 2020

Carl T. Bergstrom on Twitter, April 27, 2020, "Two Bakersfield doctors cite their testing data to urge reopening," April 23, 2020

BakersfieldNow Eyewitness News, "Public Health responds to claims from doctors at Accelerated Urgent Care," April 23, 2020

BakersfieldNow Eyewitness News, "Bakersfield doctors dispute need for stay-at-home order," April 22, 2020

PolitiFact, "Tucker Carlson says coronavirus isn’t as deadly as we thought. Experts disagree," May 4, 2020

Phone interview with Thomas Novotny, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the San Diego State University School of Public Health, May 5, 2020

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Facebook post cites doctors’ widely disputed calculations on COVID-19 death rate

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