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- U.S. Rep. Roger Williams (R-Texas) cited Johns Hopkins data for his claim.
- Both Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center data and CDC mortality death certificate data indicate there were more deaths in 2021 than in 2020.
2021 was the year COVID-19 vaccines became widely available to Americans after a grim 2020. While our resistance to the virus has improved with the vaccine, the pandemic persists.
On Dec. 2, U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, said in an email, "According to the latest data from John (sic) Hopkins University, the number of COVID-19 deaths recorded so far in 2021 has surpassed the total for 2020."
He linked this increased level of deaths to President Joe Biden and credited the vaccine development to former President Donald Trump's Operation Warp Speed, a federal agency partnership to accelerate the development and distribution of the vaccine.
We also found a Dec. 21 tweet by Williams that said, "Americans are WORSE off under this Administration than ever before," citing "More COVID deaths under President Biden than President Trump."
At the request of a reader, we're fact-checking this claim: Is it true that, despite vaccine availability, more people died from COVID-19 in 2021 than in 2020?
We reached out to Williams' office (five emails starting Dec. 6 and three phone calls) to confirm the email and ask about the source but received no answer.
However, the original Dec. 2 newsletter email pointed to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center's global map that tracks active cases, vaccines administered, and deaths worldwide. The dashboard has tracked how the world is faring against COVID-19 since the pandemic's early days.
National outlets including USA Today, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Forbes all reported in late November that the number of deaths in 2021 exceeded those in 2020. They used Johns Hopkins data as an up-to-date marker of 2021 deaths and compared that to the CDC's official count of 2020 death certificates.
The outlets used the dashboard data instead of data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on COVID-19 deaths since CDC data is less frequently updated. Data must be received and processed by the National Center for Health Statistics.
CDC data indicates there were 385,443 U.S. deaths attributing COVID-19 as an underlying or contributing cause on death certificates in 2020.
By contrast, there were 446,197 U.S. deaths attributed to COVID-19 on death certificates in 2021, as of Jan. 12.
A CDC spokesperson wrote in a Jan. 5 email the CDC won't have the final 2021 data for nearly a year, but the death toll will climb as more data comes in for 2021. The spokesperson said it is safe to say the 2021 death toll will remain higher than in 2020.
The CDC numbers show there were over 60,000 more deaths in 2021 compared to 2020.
So, indeed, the number of COVID-19 deaths in 2021 as reported by the CDC exceeds the number of deaths reported in 2020.
For Texas, the CDC counted 47,669 deaths involving COVID-19 in 2021 as of Jan. 12 and 33,542 deaths involving COVID-19 in 2020.
Williams has voted against a mask mandate in the U.S. House and criticized Biden's vaccine mandate for employers, including in the same tweet he complained that Biden had presided over a higher COVID-19 death toll.
The Biden administration has been advocating for vaccination as the linchpin in a strategy to combat the virus. Scientists call vaccination the single biggest protection against falling ill and dying from COVID-19. A September CDC report found that after the Delta variant became the most common variant, people who were not fully vaccinated had a 10-times-higher risk of dying from COVID-19 than fully vaccinated people.
A study supported by the National Institutes of Health published in August estimated the vaccines prevented up to 140,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. during the first five months they were available.
Spencer Fox, associate director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, said the first thing to consider when it comes to looking at 2020 and 2021 pandemic statistics is that 2020 is a ten-month period while 2021 is a full pandemic year. Much of the COVID-19 deaths happened March 2020 and onward; only 26 deaths involving COVID-19 were recorded for January and February 2020.
Additionally, the U.S. experienced a surge in cases starting winter 2020 near the end of that year, Fox said. Many people died from those 2020 infections in early 2021, and that was well before vaccines were widely available. So while many of the infections in that wave happened in 2020, they were part of the 2021 mortality statistics.
There was also a delta variant surge in summer 2021, after vaccines had become widely available to the public.
"What we've seen basically since that surge is really just continued spread," Fox said, noting that the delta and omicron variants surprised a lot of people.
The delta variant was more infectious and had increased transmissibility, according to the CDC.
"But I think even though vaccines were widely available, I think a lot of the mortality that happened over the summer – during that major delta surge – was happening on unvaccinated individuals," Fox said.
Fox noted that even though many people were vaccinated, vaccination rates were low. "There was plenty kind of fuel for the COVID virus to spread on," Fox said.
Timothy Bray, University of Texas at Dallas professor and director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research, noted there was not clear guidance at the beginning of the pandemic on how to record a death that was COVID-19-related. The institute runs the North Texas COVID Data Viewer and works with local governments on COVID-19 reporting.
"It didn't even have a cause of death code. And so, in the early days, we were asking local health departments to tell us how many people have you had that have died from COVID," Bray said. "Eventually, that process became a little bit more concretized and was hung upon the death certificate process."
Detecting and determining COVID-19 deaths has been an evolving process, Bray said, adding that numbers have become more accurate as officials got better at detecting the virus and knowing its complications.
So while there have been more COVID-19 deaths counted in 2021, it's also important to note that individual medical professionals and local hospitals have gotten better at tracking deaths. And all that data on the local level rolls up to become the national-level data.
"Over time, the medical community's understanding of the disease, and the complications of the disease, has changed," Bray said.
Williams' office wrote in a Dec. 2 email newsletter, "According to the latest data from John (sic) Hopkins University, the number of COVID-19 deaths recorded so far in 2021 has surpassed the total for 2020."
CDC data shows there were over 60,000 more deaths in 2021 compared to 2020. Johns Hopkins data, used by Williams and many national news outlets, also reported more deaths in 2021.
We rate this claim True.
Email newsletter from the office of Rep. Roger Williams, Dec. 2, 2021
Tweet by Rep. Roger Williams, Dec. 21, 2021
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "COVID-19 Mortality Overview," accessed Dec. 21, 2021
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "United States COVID-19 Cases, Deaths, and Laboratory Testing (NAATs) by State, Territory, and Jurisdiction," accessed Dec. 21, 2021
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Monitoring Incidence of COVID-19 Cases, Hospitalizations, and Deaths, by Vaccination Status – 13 U.S. Jurisdictions, April 4-July 17, 2021," Sept. 10, 2021
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Daily Updates of Totals by Week and State," visited webpage on Jan. 5, 2022
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Trends in Number of COVID-19 Cases and Deaths in the US Reported to CDC, by State/Territory," accessed Dec. 21, 2021
Phone interview with Dr. Timothy Bray at the University of Texas at Dallas, Dec. 29, 2021
Phone interview with Spencer Fox, associate director of UT Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, Jan. 6, 2022
Emails with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention media spokespeople, Jan. 5, 2021
Chuck Lindell, Austin American-Statesman, "Chip Roy rails against 'absurd' House mask mandate: 'Shut this place down,'" July 28, 2021
Travis Caldwell, Jason Hanna, Deidre McPhillips, Christina Maxouris, CNN, "The highly contagious Omicron variant will 'find just about everybody,' Fauci says, but vaccinated people will still fare better," Jan. 12, 2022
Erin Bryant, National Institutes of Health, "Vaccines prevented up to 140,000 COVID-19 deaths in U.S.," Aug. 24, 2021
Maggie Astor, "Despite vaccines, the U.S. has lost more lives to Covid this year than last." Nov. 23, 2021
Celina Tebor and John Bacon, USA Today, "COVID-19 deaths in 2021 have surpassed last year's count, CDC data shows: Live updates," Nov. 22, 2021
Jon Kamp, Robbie Whelan, and Anthony DeBarros, The Wall Street Journal, "U.S. COVID-19 Deaths in 2021 Surpass 2020's," Nov. 20, 2021
Kimberlee Speakman, Forbes, "U.S. Covid Deaths In 2021 Pass Toll for 2020," Nov. 20, 2021
Kathy Katella, Yale Medicine, "5 Things to Know About the Delta Variant," Dec. 10, 2021
Dan Diamond, Politico, "The crash landing of 'Operation Warp Speed,'" Jan. 17, 2021
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