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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

Fact Check: Is COVID-19 Really The Leading Cause Of Death In America?

N.C. Department of Public Safety
North Carolina Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen gives an update on the coronavirus on April 17.

The coronavirus has killed more than 300 people in North Carolina. Last week, at the state's near-daily press conference, Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said COVID-19 is now the leading cause of death in the United States. WRAL's Paul Specht joins WFAE's Lisa Worf to assess that claim.

Lisa Worf: So, the number of COVID-19-related deaths in the U.S. has climbed more than 56,000. So, is Cohen right that it's the leading cause of death at this point? 

Paul Specht: On a daily basis: Yes, she is right. There have been days in recent weeks where there were more reported deaths by coronavirus than any other cause. The big picture: No, she's not right. Coronavirus is not even on track to kill as many people as heart disease and cancer, which are the leading causes of death in America.

Worf: And when you say the big picture, are you talking then about yearly totals, or how does that work?

Specht: That's right. The leading cause of death is a designation that has an actual meaning behind it, a specific definition, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And they look at it in terms of years: How many deaths were reported in any given year?

Worf: And what does that look like, and where does COVID-19 kind of rate on that scale?

Specht: The CDC most recent numbers were reported in 2018. That year, they reported about 650,000 deaths by heart disease. By contrast, you know, we don't know how many people will be killed by coronavirus.

We're up to about 55,000 now. The president has said he believes it will be under 100,000 as of today. There's a model based at the University of Washington that says we'll reach about 74,000 coronavirus deaths by August.

On a smaller scale, you can look at how many deaths there have been between January and April. And the CDC told us that by the end of April, in 2018, there had been more than 200,000 heart disease deaths. Contrast that with coronavirus.

We're at about 56,000 now — so about a quarter of what the total heart disease deaths were between January and April in 2018. So, to put it in perspective, heart disease still — as of 2018 numbers — dwarfs what we're projected to see out of coronavirus this year.

Worf: So, "leading cause" as in that whole year's number, then?

Specht: That's right. And so how they get daily comparisons is people have been taking the average number of deaths per day for heart disease in 2018 and extrapolating that out. So, if there were 650,000 heart disease deaths in 2018, then people are dividing that and getting about 1,700 deaths per day.

Of course, that exact number was not what you got every day in 2018. It's just an average. And so, to compare what the coronavirus is doing on a daily basis now, they're looking at daily coronavirus reports.

For instance, in our fact check, we look at April 20 and there were 1,900 coronavirus deaths in the U.S., and they say, "OK, 1,900: That's 200 more than the average number of heart disease deaths per day in 2018." And that's how they're getting these daily death comparisons for coronavirus compared to other illnesses.

Worf: So how did you rate Cohen's claim?

Specht: We gave Cohen a "half-true," and that's because in the short term — right now — it's true that there are more coronavirus deaths than there appear to be for any other cause in America on any given day over the last couple of weeks. Obviously, it's a terrible virus, and many people are dying from it. But on a grander scale, it's not something that looks like it will compete with heart disease in the long term.

These fact checks are a collaboration between WRAL and PolitiFact. You can hear them Wednesdays on WFAE's Morning Edition.

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.