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No, the CDC didn’t reduce the nation’s coronavirus death toll

  • Author: Catherine Marfin, The Dallas Morning News
  • Updated: September 3
  • Published September 3

Jorge Angel Llamas, left, takes a COVID-19 test under the supervision of nurse Karen Barringer in Chula Vista on Friday. (Eduardo Contreras/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

False theories that the country’s top public health officials drastically decreased the estimate of the coronavirus death toll went viral on social media over the weekend, in part thanks to posts President Donald Trump shared.

The posts, which have been shared by supporters of the pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy theory, claimed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its data to say that only 6% of deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. were real. One such post the president shared has been removed by Twitter.

Although the numbers cited did come from CDC data, they were widely misinterpreted, health experts say.

The viral posts quoted a weekly update from the CDC that lists co-morbidities, or conditions that contribute to COVID-19 deaths. Co-morbidities listed on the chart include pneumonia, influenza, hypertension, obesity, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

To determine the number of COVID-19 deaths and co-morbidities, the CDC uses death certificate data. Death certificates list all the causes and conditions that led to a person’s death and can have more than one listed.

As of Aug. 22, 161,392 people died of COVID-19, according to the CDC’s data. Of those deaths, COVID-19 was listed as the only cause of death in 6% of the cases, the CDC said. The other 94% of people had other conditions listed that contributed to their deaths.

Those people are still included in death totals, and the other underlying conditions don’t discount the fact that they died from COVID-19, health experts say.

“If it hadn’t been for the COVID virus infection, these people would be living today,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious-diseases expert at Vanderbilt University, told The Associated Press. “So yes, although they have contributing underlying chronic health factors, it’s still the COVID virus that killed them.”

Health experts say the numbers don’t lessen the seriousness of the virus. Dr. Robert Anderson, who oversees the CDC’s death statistics work, told CNBC in a statement that COVID-19 is listed as the underlying cause of death, which is defined as “the condition that began the chain of events that ultimately led to the person’s death,” in 92% of coronavirus deaths to date.

For example, if someone is hospitalized with COVID-19 but later experiences respiratory failure and then cardiac arrest, all three would be listed on their death certificate. But COVID-19 would be considered the underlying cause of death because it led to the other two conditions, which caused the death, Dr. Mark Halstead, an associate professor of orthopedic surgery and pediatrics at Washington University, said in a Facebook post cited by Poynter.

Some of the co-morbidities that have been identified, such as diabetes and hypertension, are common conditions that are routinely managed over long spans of time by doctors and patients. People with those conditions may have been leading largely normal, full lives _ until they contracted COVID-19. So, though the conditions may have made treating COVID-19 more challenging, it was the virus that killed them, medical experts say.

The CDC data confirms that people with underlying health conditions are at a greater risk of death if they become infected, which health experts have been emphasizing about the virus since the outbreak began.

As of Wednesday, more than 184,000 people had died from the coronavirus in the U.S., according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Health experts have long said the rising death toll is probably an undercount.

“Let there not be any confusion,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told Good Morning America this week. “It’s not 9,000 deaths from COVID-19. It’s 180,000-plus deaths. The point that the CDC was trying to make was that a certain percentage of ... (deaths) had nothing else but COVID. That does not mean that someone who has hypertension, or diabetes who dies of COVID didn’t die of COVID-19. They did.”