Editor’s note: PolitiFact, which is owned by the Poynter Institute, is fact-checking misinformation about the coronavirus. This article is republished with permission, and originally appeared here.
Celebrity psychologist Phil McGraw, known to his TV viewers as “Dr. Phil,” argued for reopening the economy on Fox News, rattling off a string of statistics about other causes of death that don’t require statewide shutdowns.
McGraw’s figures were not all accurate, however, and the comparisons he drew with the novel coronavirus weren’t apples-to-apples.
“The fact of the matter is, we have people dying — 45,000 people a year die from automobile accidents, 480,000 from cigarettes, 360,000 a year from swimming pools,” McGraw told Fox News host Laura Ingraham. “But we don’t shut the country down for that.”
It didn’t take long for us to see where McGraw was right, and where he was wrong. And McGraw later said he offered “bad examples.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette use is responsible for over 480,000 U.S. deaths per year, as McGraw said. The talk show host slightly overstated the number of deaths due to motor vehicle crashes, which the CDC reported as 40,231 in 2017.
But McGraw was wildly off when it came to deaths in swimming pools.
The CDC tallied 3,709 deaths from accidental drowning or submersion in 2017, the most recent year with data available. Between 2005 and 2014, there were 3,536 unintentional deaths by drowning per year on average, plus an additional 332 from drowning in boat-related incidents.
Not all drownings occur in swimming pools. According to the CDC, more than half of fatal and nonfatal drownings among people 15 years and older occur in natural water, such as lakes or the ocean. Drowning can also occur in bathtubs.
In an April 17 video on Facebook and Instagram Live, McGraw said he “misspoke” about drowning deaths. He said he was citing the worldwide number, which is 320,000 deaths per year, according to the World Health Organization.
That’s still 40,000 fewer deaths than what he originally said. And the problems go beyond the number.
McGraw’s comparison ignores that other, more predictable causes of death are “spread out throughout the year, and we’ve built up the capacity to manage them,” said Arthur Caplan, the founding head of the division of medical ethics at the New York University School of Medicine.
“That comparison is ridiculous, ill-grounded, and actually dangerous,” Caplan said. “The issue isn’t how many people die of car crashes or swimming pool accidents or strokes or whatever. The question is whether they all happen at once and overwhelm the health care system.”
Other experts have told us comparisons like McGraw’s also downplay the coronavirus’ risk of exponential spread — and the importance of mitigation efforts in reducing that risk.
The Imperial College of London estimated in mid March that if the U.S. did absolutely nothing to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the country could see as many as 2.2 million deaths — a number President Donald Trump has pointed to as proof that his efforts have been successful.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has called comparisons between the coronavirus and traffic accidents a “false equivalency,” noting that the coronavirus “is emerging, and you really can’t predict totally the impact it’s going to have.”
McGraw acknowledged that the comparison wasn’t perfect on Facebook and Instagram Live. A spokesperson for the “Dr. Phil” TV show pointed us to those remarks when we asked for a comment.
“Last night, I said we as a society have chosen to live with certain controllable deadly risks everyday — smoking, auto crashes, swimming,” he said. “And yes, I know that those are not contagious, so probably bad examples, probably bad examples.”
McGraw said there are “360,000 (deaths) a year from swimming pools, but we don’t shut the country down for that.”
For one thing, that’s too many zeros. There were 3,709 U.S. deaths from accidental drowning or submersion in 2017.
McGraw has since said he was citing the worldwide number for drowning deaths, and that his comparisons were “probably bad examples.” The coronavirus is infectious and contagious, and the count of deaths from drowning is spread over a year.
We rate his original statement False.
PolitiFact, which is fact-checking misinformation about the coronavirus, is part of the Poynter Institute. See more of their fact-checks at politifact.com/coronavirus.