Italy hasn’t changed its Covid-19 death toll from 130,000 to under 4,000

10 November 2021
What was claimed

The National Health Institute in Italy has recalculated the Covid-19 death toll from 130,468 down to 3,783 directly due to Covid-19, or 2.9% of the total.

Our verdict

Incorrect. Research from the Italian health authorities looking at a sample of around 8,000 people who’d died in hospital with Covid-19 found 2.9% didn’t have any previous underlying conditions, not that they didn’t die of Covid-19.

A number of Facebook posts and some websites have claimed that Italy has adjusted its Covid-19 death toll from over 130,000 to 3,783. This is wrong.

It seems to be based on an article in Italian newspaper Il Tempo, dated 21 October 2021.

A blogpost published by the Daily Sceptic covered the Il Tempo article, saying: “Italian Higher Institute of Health Adjusts Number of Deaths Due to Covid Alone Since February 2020 Downwards From Over 130,000 to under 4,000”.

Toby Young, editor of the Daily Sceptic, also posted the article on Twitter with the caption: “The Italian Higher Institute of Health had adjusted downwards its estimate of the number of people who've died from Covid, as opposed to with Covid, from over 130,000 to to under 4,000. Yes, you read that right.” That post now has over 3,000 retweets and quote tweets.

Neither Italy nor its health bodies have readjusted its Covid-19 death toll. This is based on a misreading of a report from the Italian National Institute of Health (the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, or ISS).

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Where did 3,783 deaths come from?

A report from the ISS looked at a sample of over 7,900 patients with Covid-19 who had died in hospital, whose records could be analysed. Of those, 2.9% had no other conditions diagnosed before the infection. The ISS did not say that only 2.9% of deaths attributed to Covid-19 were due to the virus. 

The article from Il Tempo took this 2.9% and applied it to the total number of Covid-19 deaths in Italy at that time, which the ISS report said was 130,468.

It said (translated into English via Google): “So of the 130,468 deaths registered by official statistics at the time of preparation of the new report only 3,783 would be due to the power of the virus itself.”

This is wrong for several reasons.

The underlying conditions the other 97.1% of patients had beforehand does not mean they didn’t die of Covid-19. 

And as the ISS pointed out in a subsequent press release (translated by Google) on the basis of death certificates, Covid-19 was the direct cause of death in 89% of cases where someone died having had a positive test. 

It also points out that underlying conditions, such as cancer in the last five years, hypertension and heart disease, are extremely common in the older population (who are particularly susceptible to hospitalisation and death from Covid-19), and fairly common in the general population.

The report also acknowledges that its sample may not be totally representative as “the sample is opportunistic; it represents deaths in subjects who needed hospitalization only”. 

A correction?

The author of the original Il Tempo article told USA Today that he applied the 2.9% figure to all COVID-19 deaths, based on previous action from the ISS, whose experts used "a few hundred" medical records to describe the trend and impact of the virus across Italy at the beginning of the pandemic. But in this case the calculation was still incorrect.

The Daily Sceptic updated its article with a correction of sorts, stating the author of the Il Tempo article was “effectively stating his opinion that only those who died of Covid without comorbidities (2.9%) should be counted as a Covid death, and then extrapolates from there to suggest that the ‘real’ Covid death toll over the period in question was only 3,783.” It clarified that this goes against what the report says and “severely misinterprets” the position of the Italian authorities.

However, apart from this, the article remains up with its original headline and body text, as does Mr Young’s tweet.

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