FILE - In this Oct. 27, 2020, Artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg walks among thousands of white flags planted in remembrance of Americans who have died of COVID-19 near Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Washington. The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus has eclipsed 400,000 in the waning hours in office for President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Tony Robbins’ COVID-19 death toll claims are fatally flawed

AAP FactCheck March 31, 2021

The Statement

A video shared on Facebook features motivational speaker Tony Robbins claiming total deaths across the United States had not increased in 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the edited clip, posted to an Australian page on March 7, Robbins can be heard saying, “The same number of people have died this year, 2020, as died in 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016 and 2015 – 2.8 million people. It’s within 10 to 15,000 people every year.”

Robbins goes on to claim that “the same number of old people died in 2020”, with the only difference being that “heart disease, for the first time in 30 years, has come down, cancer has come down” while COVID-19 deaths increased.

At the time of writing, the post’s video had been viewed more than 300,000 times and shared more than 1100 times. The video was also shared to the Instagram page of another Australian user. The same edited version of the video had been circulating since March 5, while another version dates back to January.

A Facebook video post
 A video claims the number of deaths in 2020 in the US hasn’t risen dramatically despite COVID-19. 

The Analysis

Contrary to the video’s claims, the number of deaths in the United States in 2020 increased by more than half a million on the previous year’s tally, according to official data.

Deaths among older residents also increased, as did the number of fatalities attributed to heart disease.

As of March 31, more than 550,000 people were recorded as having died with COVID-19 in the US – the highest tally of any country in the world.

However, in the video, Tony Robbins, a US self-help author who has previously questioned the accuracy of COVID-19 death figures and authorities’ response to the virus, expresses his scepticism about the severity of the pandemic.

He claims the overall number of deaths in the US in 2020 was around the same as the mortality figure for each of the past five years.

It is not clear exactly when the video was recorded, and Robbins did not respond to a request for comment when contacted by AAP FactCheck via a spokesperson.

However, a longer version of the same Robbins video shows the death figures are a reference to a “John Hopkins report” he said was published two weeks earlier before it was taken down.

This appears to be a reference to an article published in the John Hopkins News-Letter, the university’s student newspaper, which drew on a webinar from applied economics lecturer Genevieve Briand.

The article was retracted four days after publication after it was noted that it included false claims that COVID-19 had not led to any excess deaths in the US. A subsequent analysis noted Briand had misleadingly compared different points in time for two years which failed to account for the seasonal nature of mortality.

The latest provisional data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed 3,369,731 deaths had been recorded from all causes in 2020.

The figure is an 18 per cent increase on the 2,854,838 deaths recorded in 2019, and an even-greater rise when compared to mortality figures for the other years cited by Robbins. Official data shows there were 2,839,205 deaths in the US in 2018, 2,813,503 deaths in 2017, 2,744,248 deaths in 2016 and 2,712,630 deaths in 2015.

The CDC notes the 2020 data is continually being revised as new death certificate data is provided by states. A spokesman confirmed to AAP FactCheck in an email that the total number of deaths in the US in 2020 was higher than the total deaths recorded each year in the previous five years.

The CDC is expected to officially announce that COVID-19 deaths made 2020 “the deadliest year in recorded US history”, according to a Politico report from 10 March.

The same pattern of a high number of “excess deaths” in 2020 due to the pandemic has also played out across many other countries.

Robbins also wrongly claims that there had been no change in deaths among the elderly in 2020, and that deaths from heart disease had declined.

A CDC analysis found deaths between January 26 and October 3, 2020 were higher than the average for 2015-2019 in every age group except for those aged under 25. Deaths among those aged 65-74, 75-84 and 85 and older were up 24.1 per cent, 21.5 per cent and 14.7 per cent respectively.

Provisional CDC data for 2020 also shows deaths due to “diseases of heart” increased to around 686,000 from 659,051 the previous year. Deaths from “malignant neoplasms” – or cancer – were slightly down, at around 595,000 in 2020 compared to 599,601 in 2019.

AAP FactCheck previously fact-checked a post that wrongly predicted the US was headed for fewer deaths in 2020 despite the pandemic.

A woman walks among white flags  in Washington.
 A woman walks among white flags planted in remembrance of Americans who have died of COVID-19. 

The Verdict

The video falsely suggests there has been no increase in deaths in the US during 2020 when provisional data shows over half a million more people died than in any of the preceding five years.

It also wrongly claims that there has been no increase in mortality among the elderly in 2020 and that deaths from heart disease declined. A CDC analysis shows deaths among all older age groups increased significantly, while data also points to a rise in heart disease-related deaths.

False – Content that has no basis in fact.

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