Fact-check: Were there really fewer COVID-19 deaths in NC in all of July than on a single day in January?


RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Deaths due to COVID-19 this month are a fraction of what they were during the winter.

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CBS17.com took a closer look at a claim in a statement from state Senate Leader Phil Berger as part of our pledge to test the factual accuracy of public communications offered by candidates and political leaders.

THE CLAIM: A release sent by Berger’s office claims “there were fewer COVID deaths during the entire MONTH of July than a given DAY in January.”

THE FACTS: The statement technically may have been true Thursday, when it was distributed, but it is no longer accurate.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reported an additional 15 deaths Friday, bringing the total of COVID deaths in July to 129. That’s higher than the daily death total for every single day in January; the highest single-day figure that month was 128 on Jan. 4.

And the total for July likely will climb even higher in the coming days because there is frequently a lag of about two weeks in the data between when a death takes place and when it is added to the total.

A hypothetical death that takes places July 28 might not be reported to the state until sometime in early August and would be recorded by the actual date of death retroactively. That means we might not know the exact number of deaths in July until mid-August.

“Any reasonable reading would conclude that we’re referencing reported deaths through July 29, the date the press release went out,” Berger spokesman Pat Ryan said in a statement to CBS17.com. “When the release went out, DHHS reported 103 deaths in July. We said that’s lower than a given day in January, and we then gave the days in January.”

The 103 deaths for July was the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services total from Wednesday’s update — by Thursday afternoon it had grown to 114 — more than all but four single days in January (Jan. 1, Jan. 4, Jan. 15 and Jan. 19).

CBS17.com asked him what is to be gained by looking at those numbers in that context, and if that framing misses the bigger picture of how COVID-19 and the Delta variant situation has worsened over the past few weeks.

“We should be relieved that there are so many fewer deaths because of the effectiveness of the vaccine. In my opinion, media reports should be leading with that, not ignoring it,” Ryan said. “I would say that ignoring this good news is ‘missing the bigger picture.’ Constantly highlighting the worst news is creating a state of perpetual panic. The only interest that serves is generating more clicks on news stories.”

The average number of COVID deaths per day in each month of 2021 with complete data. (Source: NCDHHS.)

Ryan is right that deaths are way down from where they were in the winter. The state averaged 97 deaths per day in January, but just five per day in June — the last full month for which complete data is available.

“The decreasing in deaths since January is most likely due, and in fact almost certainly due, to the rise in vaccinations,” said Dr. Rachel Graham, an epidemiologist at the UNC Gillings School of Public Health Policy.

But will they stay low?

The current hospital numbers offer a clue: They’ve risen 120 percent in just two weeks, with the 1,168 hospitalized patients across the state the most since April 21.

The overwhelming majority of those hospitalized have not been fully vaccinated, which also makes them more susceptible to death.

“The people who are dying right now are the people who have not been vaccinated at all,” Graham said.

Deaths are the ultimate lagging indicator: In the flowchart of COVID-19 surges, case numbers are typically the first to rise, followed by hospitalized patients, with deaths climbing later.

Graham expects our death numbers to rise “probably in a few weeks.”

The University of Washington’s model projects roughly 1,200 more deaths in the state during the next three months. That’s a slightly faster pace than we’ve been on lately — for context, that’s roughly as many deaths as the state reported in the 4 1/2 months since mid-March.

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