Americans don’t trust the government’s COVID-19 death toll numbers

Graeme BruceBusiness Data Journalist
August 28, 2020, 6:30 PM UTC

As the official number of COVID-19 deaths inches closer towards 200,000 in the United States, new Economist/YouGov Poll data suggests most Americans don’t think the government’s statistics are accurate. 

The way in which COVID-19 deaths are counted has been a topic of much discussion since the pandemic was declared in March. A patchwork of state-level procedures, missed diagnoses, and indirectly related deaths all contribute to the challenge of calculating the national death toll. It therefore makes sense Americans are skeptical, but Americans are split on whether the official count is an underestimate or an overestimate.  

About a quarter (28%) believe fewer people have died and about a third (35%) say more people have died. Only 15 percent of Americans think the government numbers are accurate. 

Supporters of Democratic candidate for president Joe Biden and those who support President Donald Trump are diametrically opposed: 62 percent of Bien supporters think more people have died while 63 percent of Trump supporters think fewer people have died. Supporters on both sides can agree on one thing: only 13 percent of either camp believe the government numbers are accurate. 

Cable news consumption may also play a role. Roughly half of CNN viewers (53%) and half of MSNBC viewers (52%) believe more people have died, while only about one in five Fox News viewers (21%) agree. On the flipside, 42 percent of those Fox News viewers believe fewer people have died, a figure that stand in stark contrast to CNN viewers (11%) and MSNBC viewers (9%).

How many Americans will die from COVID-19 in 2020? 

America’s skepticism of official numbers is also clear when we asked respondents how many people will die before the end of the year. About a third (32%) of Americans, a plurality, say the nation’s COVID-19 death toll will reach between 150,000 and 200,000 before year’s end.  

About one in five (19%) think the count could reach 250,000 by December 31, while the same number of Americans (19%) think the toll will be between 100,000 and 150,000 before the end of the year. 

Results along presidential candidate support shows one in five (20%) of Trump supporters think fewer than 100,000 people will have died by the end of 2020. Virtually no Biden supporters (3%) think that. 

Projections from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows the country could reach 200,000 by mid-September. 

Following a federal government decision in July mandating hospitals to stop sending critical COVID-19 data to the CDC and instead report directly to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), we asked Americans which organizations should oversee collecting data. 

A plurality (43%) say it should be the CDC, while only 11 percent say it should be HHS. One in five (21%) are not sure. 

Related: How many Americans are mailing in their vote?

See the toplines and crosstabs from this week’s Economist/YouGov Poll  

MethodologyThe Economist survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,500 U.S. adult citizens interviewed online between August 23 - 25, 2020. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the US Bureau of the Census, as well as 2016 Presidential vote, registration status, geographic region, and news interest. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all US citizens. The margin of error is approximately 3.6% for the overall sample.     

Image: Getty