Has the United States surpassed 1 million deaths from COVID-19? It depends whom you ask.

According to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 dashboard, yes. According to the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, no.

Why the discrepancy? And why does it matter?

While there are state and national standards for reporting disease mortality, not every data center receives information at the same time and not all of it is complete, according to Vickie Mays, professor of psychology in the UCLA College and of health policy and management at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, collects data from each state and “there’s a lag in reporting sometimes for the death to get from the state to the CDC,” Mays said.

When state data centers are understaffed or overwhelmed — as New York was early in the pandemic, when bodies piled up in refrigerated trucks outside hospitals — it can take a while for mortality data to be collected and transferred to the CDC. “That overload on the system resulted in a significant impact on the mortality data,” Mays said.

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