Monday, November 30, 2020

Johns Hopkins - A Closer Look At U.S. Deaths

retractionwatch |  A student newspaper at Johns Hopkins has retracted an article claiming that COVID-19 has had “relatively no effect on deaths in the United States.”

The article, “A closer look at U.S. deaths due to COVID-19” (link from the Wayback Machine) was published on November 22 and relied on a presentation by Genevieve Briand, assistant program director of the Applied Economics master’s degree program at Hopkins. 

From the article:

These data analyses suggest that in contrast to most people’s assumptions, the number of deaths by COVID-19 is not alarming. In fact, it has relatively no effect on deaths in the United States.

Not surprisingly, the article was promoted on social media by COVID-19 skeptics. And yesterday, The News-Letter made the article disappear, tweeting:

As is typical in such cases, that earned the article another round of tweets, this time with cries of censorship.

We learned about the deletion this morning, and contacted the editors, along with Briand, for explanations. First, Briand explained the disappearance by saying that as a student newspaper, The News-Letter 

simply rotates the articles it features on a weekly basis so as to showcase as many JHU students articles as possible.

Having cut some of our teeth as student newspaper editors, that didn’t quite wash. The News-Letter’s editors, Rudy Malcom and Katy Wilner, sent us a link to a just-published retraction notice that provides a lot more detail:

After The News-Letter published this article on Nov. 22, it was brought to our attention that our coverage of Genevieve Briand’s presentation “COVID-19 Deaths: A Look at U.S. Data” has been used to support dangerous inaccuracies that minimize the impact of the pandemic.

We decided on Nov. 26 to retract this article to stop the spread of misinformation, as we explained on social media. However, it is our responsibility as journalists to provide a historical record. We have chosen to take down the article from our website, but it is available here as a PDF.

In accordance with our standards for transparency, we are sharing with our readers how we came to this decision. The News-Letter is an editorially and financially independent, student-run publication. Our articles and content are not endorsed by the University or the School of Medicine, and our decision to retract this article was made independently.

Briand’s study should not be used exclusively in understanding the impact of COVID-19, but should be taken in context with the countless other data published by Hopkins, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

As assistant director for the Master’s in Applied Economics program at Hopkins, Briand is neither a medical professional nor a disease researcher. At her talk, she herself stated that more research and data are needed to understand the effects of COVID-19 in the U.S.

Briand was quoted in the article as saying, “All of this points to no evidence that COVID-19 created any excess deaths. Total death numbers are not above normal death numbers.” This claim is incorrect and does not take into account the spike in raw death count from all causes compared to previous years. According to the CDC, there have been almost 300,000 excess deaths due to COVID-19. Additionally, Briand presented data of total U.S. deaths in comparison to COVID-19-related deaths as a proportion percentage, which trivializes the repercussions of the pandemic. This evidence does not disprove the severity of COVID-19; an increase in excess deaths is not represented in these proportionalities because they are offered as percentages, not raw numbers.

Briand also claimed in her analysis that deaths due to heart diseases, respiratory diseases, influenza and pneumonia may be incorrectly categorized as COVID-19-related deaths. However, COVID-19 disproportionately affects those with preexisting conditions, so those with those underlying conditions are statistically more likely to be severely affected and die from the virus.

Because of these inaccuracies and our failure to provide additional information about the effects of COVID-19, The News-Letter decided to retract this article. It is our duty as a publication to combat the spread of misinformation and to enhance our fact-checking process. We apologize to our readers.

Update, 1200 UTC, 11/28/20: Briand tells us:

The News-Letter is an editorially and financially independent, student-run publication. Their decision to retract the article was their own. Yanni Gu did an excellent at reporting the content of the presentation.