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Viral claim that only 6% of COVID-19 deaths were caused by the virus is flat-out wrong

woman in hospital
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A bogus claim circulating social media — one that purports that "only 6%" of the reported COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are solely attributable to the new coronavirus — is dangerously misleading, infectious disease experts told Live Science.

This claim stems from an Aug. 26 update the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) posted on its website, which provides a detailed breakdown of the accompanying health conditions (known as comorbidities) and contributing causes of death reported in people who have died of the new coronavirus in the United States. The CDC noted that "For 6% of the deaths, COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned."

In other words, 6% of people who died when they had COVID-19 didn't have underlying conditions, such as diabetes, asthma or heart disease, and didn't experience any medical complications, such as kidney failure or sepsis. But the other 94% of deaths were still caused by COVID-19, infectious disease experts said. That's because many chronic, underlying conditions can make diseases that a person might otherwise recover from, such as COVID-19, suddenly deadly. 

Related: 14 coronavirus myths busted by science

"When you look at the number of excess deaths this year in comparison with previous years, it's staggering," Dr. William Hanage, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard University’s School of Public Health told Live Science. That's an estimated 228,200 additional deaths in the United States, according to the Weinberger Lab at the University of California, San Francisco. Hanage noted that many of the people who have died so far had nonfatal diseases and would not have perished but for contracting the new coronavirus as well. For instance, someone with diabetes or high-blood pressure might have lived decades longer if they had not contracted COVID-19. Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventative medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee, echoed the same reality. "The point is that those people would not have died except that they were carried away by COVID," Schaffner told Live Science. 

In addition, deadly medical complications can be the immediate cause of death when in fact a virus is the ultimate culprit, as is evident with HIV/AIDS. More than 32 million people worldwide  have died so far of HIV/AIDS, for instance, but the disease itself isn't usually the immediate cause of death. Dr. Shahnaz Azad, an infectious disease expert in Olympia Fields, Illinois, told Franciscan Health, "It's not HIV that kills you. HIV kills your immunity, and then you become susceptible to all kinds of infections and cancers." 

A death certificate might list a primary cause of death as Kaposi's sarcoma, for instance, but in fact, that patient would never have acquired the otherwise rare type of cancer if they hadn't been infected with HIV. The HIV virus is still what ultimately killed the person. 

That hasn't stopped the flood of misleading social media posts about this 6% statistic. These posts have led many people to falsely believe that the number of U.S. coronavirus deaths is far less than previously reported. President Donald Trump, for instance, retweeted a since-removed post on Twitter claiming that "This week the CDC quietly updated the Covid number to admit that only 6% of all the 153,504 deaths recorded actually died from Covid. That’s 9,210 deaths. The other 94% had 2 to 3 other serious illnesses and the overwhelming majority were of very advanced age." 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, appeared on the TV show "Good Morning America" yesterday to correct the misunderstanding. "The numbers you've been hearing — there are 180,000-plus deaths — are real deaths from COVID-19. Let there not be any confusion about that," he said.

Related: Coronavirus outbreak: Live updates

What's more, the fact that those with comorbidities are likelier to die of COVID-19 is not exactly reassuring. A huge fraction of the U.S. population has conditions that increase COVID-19 severity, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma and even obesity. According to the CDC, nearly 40% of all U.S. adults age 20 and older are obese. "Obviously a lot of people have one of these things, or one of the very large number of other things that would be included in that catch-all term," Hanage said. "And even if you don’t have a comorbidity yourself, someone you love almost certainly does." 

The prevalence of comorbidities is seen in the CDC update, which noted that of people who died of COVID-19 but also had other medical complications or underlying medical conditions, "there were 2.6 additional conditions or causes per death." 

Schaffner said that "the issue is not whether COVID alone can produce serious illness and death — it can. Of course, those who are older and have underlying chronic conditions (comorbidities) are more likely to suffer more serious disease, often with fatal outcomes. Thus, most people who die of COVID have other contributing causes of death." The cause of death for the 6% who have died without comorbidities, Shaffner explained, is actually a "severe pneumonia, caused by the virus, which is then exacerbated by a person's own immune and inflammatory response." 

Moreover, the CDC statistic in question speaks only to overall deaths, the experts told Live Science, and it's important to keep in mind the other disabling and prolonged health problems COVID-19 causes for those who survive the disease. 

"Death is not the only outcome that matters." said Dr. Eduardo Franco, the director of the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and the chairman of the Department of Oncology at McGill University in Canada. "There is considerable suffering and risk of long-term sequelae if one is hospitalized because of COVID-19. Being hospitalized is a reflection of the severity of the infection. Being moved to an ICU is an even more ominous indication of severity." 

If anything, this episode highlights how public health data shouldn't be misconstrued for political purposes, Franco said.

"The pandemic has become much too politicized when it's really just about dealing with something as basic as public health science," Franco told Live Science. "Some people try to downplay the problem by ostensibly misinterpreting the statistics," he said, adding: "We can prevent so many deaths by taking basic and simple precautions: wash hands frequently, wear a mask, disinfect frequently-touched surfaces, and maintain 6 feet (1.8 meters) of distance from one another. We must keep COVID-19 numbers low while we await a vaccine. Any surges because of the virus will only choke the process and interrupt healthcare for those who need it most." 

Originally published on Live Science.

  • canopeaz
    COVID-19 is also often asymptomatic in people with underlying conditions and may cause no complications at all. Yet it is still listed as the cause of death even though the patient had no COVID-19 symptoms.

    If the same methodology of testing, categorizing, and tracking deaths were used with regard to the seasonal Flu, the death toll would be higher than 150,000 every year for the Flu, and we would have a permanent lockdown.
    Reply
  • jaxthereaper
    Except we have a vaccine for the flu, understand it better, and have treatments to match the Flu. But sure, let's not even consider any of that. 🤔
    Reply
  • Suncat2000
    The problem with the numbers is that many deaths were counted as caused by COVID when there was no evidence or testing. That's why so many are quick to believe the "6%" number. Disinformation from both sides.
    Reply
  • Butterflybob
    admin said:
    COVID-19 is often more severe in people with underlying conditions and it can also cause complications. The 6% stat doesn't include these people.

    Viral claim that only 6% of COVID-19 deaths were caused by the virus is flat-out wrong : Read more
    Also the Vaccine
    jaxthereaper said:
    Except we have a vaccine for the flu, understand it better, and have treatments to match the Flu. But sure, let's not even consider any of that. 🤔
    But remember that the vaccine for the flu is a guess that the strand of the flu is the same one as the vaccine is designed to combat, and all that is educated guess work!
    Where is the Data that children that don't have underling conditions would be more susceptible to the Virus? Why doesn't the science advance the theory that the Schools should re-open?
    Reply
  • Butterflybob
    Suncat2000 said:
    The problem with the numbers is that many deaths were counted as caused by COVID when there was no evidence or testing. That's why so many are quick to believe the "6%" number. Disinformation from both sides.
    Likewise people who line up to be tested, but don't complete the test, are notified that they have COVID!
    The Truth is not being made available.
    Reply
  • wunjee
    This is exactly what happened back in April when Prof. Walter Ricciardi, science advisor to Italy's health care minister, said that only 8% of Italy's Covid-19 deaths had any direct correlation to Covid-19, and that the rest all had serious medical conditions, advanced age and other premorbidities, sometimes multiple premorbidities.

    This is the problem with marking anyone who does WITH covid-19 as dying OF covid-19, which is our policy in the US, per Deborah Birx. The CDC's updated report even includes deaths by accidental injury of a person with Covid-19 as a Covid-19 death..

    By this same logic, George Floyd died of Covid-19..

    The CDC's guidelines also stated that testing was not necessary, that a medical professional could use their best judgement to assume that a deceased had Covid-19 and mark that as a Covid-19 death without ever testing the deceased..

    The only way we're going to get an accurate death count is when the official stats come out in a year from now and we see how many total people died compared to other years.

    Ireland keeps these death statistics monthly. And in April, at the height of the pandemic, less people died in Ireland than died in April of 2018...
    Reply
  • VElli44
    I don't think most people believe that only 6% of deaths were only Covid-related. People realize that the other 94% had Covid involved, but that if they didn't have comorbidities, most would likely be alive today. THE POINT is.... if you're relatively healthy and not obese, or have severe diabetes etc. or elderly, then you have a 99% + chance of surviving, and very likely without any complications. AND that sloppy coding is upping the numbers when the cause wasn't Covid. The problem now is that the government/CDC and media are causing us to be overly fearful of this virus - I get it, they want people to be responsible and keep it from spreading. But is mask shaming and closing businesses and schools the way to do it? At this point the virus and controlling it is becoming overtly political in nature. Let's be honest: both political parties want to be the heroes of flattening the curve. If businesses and schools open now, then Trump could take credit and win the election. And then Trump is now trying to take over the CDC and release a fast-tracked and potentially dangerous vaccine. And now the CDC calls an eviction moratorium because Congress couldn't get it's sh*t together, in order to keep newly homeless from spreading the virus. At this point, it seems that politics>lives.
    Reply
  • Busterboo
    wunjee said:
    This is exactly what happened back in April when Prof. Walter Ricciardi, science advisor to Italy's health care minister, said that only 8% of Italy's Covid-19 deaths had any direct correlation to Covid-19, and that the rest all had serious medical conditions, advanced age and other premorbidities, sometimes multiple premorbidities.

    This is the problem with marking anyone who does WITH covid-19 as dying OF covid-19, which is our policy in the US, per Deborah Birx. The CDC's updated report even includes deaths by accidental injury of a person with Covid-19 as a Covid-19 death..

    By this same logic, George Floyd died of Covid-19..

    The CDC's guidelines also stated that testing was not necessary, that a medical professional could use their best judgement to assume that a deceased had Covid-19 and mark that as a Covid-19 death without ever testing the deceased..

    The only way we're going to get an accurate death count is when the official stats come out in a year from now and we see how many total people died compared to other years.

    Ireland keeps these death statistics monthly. And in April, at the height of the pandemic, less people died in Ireland than died in April of 2018...

    Except that we need to remember there's a delay between infection and death. When you inconveniently look at longer date range of 25th of March to 5th of May, you see that Ireland actually had 1200 deaths in excess of the 5 year average. Not a good example to choose. 🤷‍♂️

    https://www.hiqa.ie/sites/default/files/2020-07/Analysis-of-excess-all-cause-mortality-in-Ireland-during-the-COVID-19-epidemic.pdf&ved=2ahUKEwjyxKGRltTrAhX9AWMBHfyGA9cQFjAPegQIBhAB&usg=AOvVaw2hfw9h0NmNU33KgG3PRCnA
    Reply
  • reeve1
    The statement "But the other 94% of deaths were still caused by COVID-19, infectious disease experts said." is also untrue. We do see numerous reports and stories of many different groups of doctors and nurses from around the Country, (Florida, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Virginia, Texas, and other States) that have spoken out against being forced to misrepresent Covid deaths in what they claimed were for political reasons. Some claimed that they were forced to do things like mark automobile accident victims who had Covid as Covid deaths. When they refused, they were fired. You can see the validity of these by search. I'm afraid even life threatening illnesses are not off limits for some people to mislead others for political purposes. Sick puppies...
    Reply
  • Guillermo
    admin said:
    COVID-19 is often more severe in people with underlying conditions and it can also cause complications. The 6% stat doesn't include these people.

    Viral claim that only 6% of COVID-19 deaths were caused by the virus is flat-out wrong : Read more
    Disinformation?? The data is from the cdc's website. The numbers have been widely inflated and very often on purpose for not only political gain but for money, that has been proven many times over.
    Reply