Fact check: In Italy, more than 132,000 have died from COVID-19

The claim: Italy's health department lowered the country's COVID-19 death toll from 130,000 to 3,783

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Italy has been among the hardest-hit countries in Europe. But a social media post claims officials have dramatically lowered the country's death count.

"Italy reduces covid death toll from 130K to 3,783," reads an apparent headline shared Oct. 18 on Instagram.

The text in the image goes on to say the "Italian Department of Health casually revised its 'Covid-19' official death toll down from over 130,000 to 3783."

The image is a screengrab from an article posted on NexusNewsfeed.com, which describes itself as a "vehicle for like-minded, independent thinkers to help create something new."

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But the claim is wrong. Italy's Ministry of Health hasn't decreased the official death toll, and the number in the post doesn't correspond to how many people have died from the virus.

The user who shared the image on Instagram told USA TODAY in a direct message that she posted it because she was asking "Italians to chime in and help us all understand."

USA TODAY reached out to Nexus Newsfeed for comment.

Italy's death toll exceeds 132,000

About 132,000 people have died due to COVID-19 in Italy – not 3,783, as the post claims.

In an interactive map, the Italian Department of Civil Protection monitors and updates daily data regarding COVID-19 cases and deaths. The death total was 131,585 as of Oct. 18, when this post was made.

A medical staff of the Gemelli hospital stands at the door of a room of the Pineta Palace Hotel where patients recovering from COVID-19 are undergoing quarantine under the supervision of the Gemelli hospital, in Rome, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020.
A medical staff of the Gemelli hospital stands at the door of a room of the Pineta Palace Hotel where patients recovering from COVID-19 are undergoing quarantine under the supervision of the Gemelli hospital, in Rome, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020.

The 3,783 figure in the post appears to stem from an editorial published Oct. 21 by Italian newspaper Il Tempo, which the Nexus Newsfeed article cites as its source.

USA TODAY reached out to the Ministry of Health and the Department of Civil Protection for comment.

Claim misinterprets COVID-19 death report

The Il Tempo article says a report from the Italian National Institute of Health found only 2.9% of COVID-19 deaths registered since the beginning of the pandemic were actually due to the coronavirus. But that's not accurate.

The report analyzed the characteristics of Italians who had died of COVID-19 as of Oct. 5. Among the characteristics were age, vaccination status and comorbidities.

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The report found that 2.9% of patients didn't have any additional diseases or conditions, known as comorbidities, listed when they died. The Il Tempo article took that percentage and applied it to Italy's COVID-19 death tally.

"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," the article reads, according to Google Translate.

Il Tempo Director Franco Bechis, who authored the article, told USA TODAY in an email his decision to apply the 2.9% figure to all COVID-19 deaths was based on previous action from the Italian National Institute of Health, 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 the article's conclusion that only 2.9% of deaths were caused by COVID-19 is "completely wrong," said Pier David Malloni, a spokesperson for the Italian National Institute of Health.

Graziano Onder, director of the Department of Cardiovascular, Endocrine-metabolic Diseases and Aging, also told La Repubblica that's not an accurate way of interpreting the report.

"It's all wrong, it's not true that only 2.9% of deaths are due to COVID," Onder told the newspaper, according to Google Translate. "Of course the vast majority of deaths are people who had pre-existing diseases but who very often were in good health, and they would have lived for many more years."

In most cases, he said, patients with pre-existing conditions like hypertension would not have died without first contracting COVID-19 – meaning the virus was the primary cause of death. Onder told the newspaper that, in Italy, there were 100,000 more deaths recorded in 2020 than in 2019.

"The reason for that increase cannot be the pre-existing chronic pathologies in many victims, which were equally widespread in previous years," he said. "That number tells the impact of the coronavirus in our country."

Similar claims spread in US

The claim that COVID-19 victims with comorbidities didn't actually die because of the virus isn't new. USA TODAY debunked similar claims that have circulated on social media throughout the pandemic.

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While comorbidities can make people more susceptible to COVID-19, the primary cause of death is determined separately from any pre-existing health conditions that may have been present, USA TODAY reported in September 2020. Public health officials have told other fact-checking organizations that COVID-19 is the primary cause of death in all deaths attributed to the virus.

Why? As Maja Artandi, medical director at Stanford University's CROWN clinic for COVID-19 patients, explained to Reuters in September 2020: "If they had not gotten the infection, they would still be alive."

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that Italy's health department lowered the country's COVID-19 death toll from 130,000 to 3,783. The country's death toll remained close to 130,000 in October and was never amended, according to records from the Department of Civil Protection and Ministry of Health.

The claim is based on a misunderstanding of comorbidities in an incorrect media report. While many COVID-19 victims have additional conditions listed on their death certificates, public health officials have said the virus is their primary cause of death, as they would have lived longer if they hadn't contracted it.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Italy did not lower its COVID-19 death toll to 3,783