Fact check: CDC's data on COVID-19 deaths used incorrectly in misleading claims

The claim: Only 6% of reported COVID-19 deaths were the result of the coronavirus

A regular update of data on COVID-19 deaths by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has prompted a groundswell of claims that only a fraction of people have actually died directly from the novel coronavirus.

The misleading and inaccurate conclusions come from recently released statistics on comorbidities data in the CDC's weekly coronavirus update, with statistics as of Aug. 26.

“For 6% of the deaths, COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned. For deaths with conditions or causes in addition to COVID-19, on average, there were 2.6 additional conditions or causes per death,” the report reads.

The data, which is maintained by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, is an aggregated list of comorbidities on death certificates reported to the agency.

President Donald Trump was among those promoting this claim.

“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 2-3 other serious illnesses & the overwhelming majority were of very advanced age,” a since-deleted retweet by Trump reads.

According to several media reports, that tweet from user and QAnon supporter "Mel Q" was removed by Twitter, which cited a violation of its rules.

The conspiracy theory, and similar ones, were repeated and widely shared across social media, with users claiming the statistics were evidence the coronavirus pandemic was not as severe as public health officials have warned or that the deaths were not the result of the virus.

USA TODAY reached out to the Facebook account of DrElizabeth Hesse DC – whose Aug. 29 post on the claim has more than 21,000 shares – for comment.

Conservative commentator Candace Owens detailed some of the data then went a step further, connecting the statistics to mail-in-voting and claiming the comorbidities data is evidence that the pandemic was an overblown threat engineered by Democrats to rig the 2020 presidential election against Trump. USA TODAY has asked Owens for a comment.

Comorbidities vs. cause of death

The CDC defines a comorbidity as when “more than one disease or condition is present in the same person at the same time.” A comorbidity is often a chronic condition that a person can live with, such as arthritis, diabetes or obesity.

When a person dies, the cause and manner of death of death are determined separately from any comorbidities that may have been present. A person who takes his own life, for instance, has suicide listed for a cause of death, with any comorbidities he may have had documented separately.

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The CDC regularly records comorbidities data for a range of diseases affecting Americans, including cancer and opioid overdoses.

As with COVID-19, it is possible that a person’s preexisting conditions exacerbated his or her death in the case of a drug overdose, for instance, but it is inaccurate to say the main cause of death was not the overdose itself.

“It seems clear that comorbidities, leading to compromised immune systems, play an important role in COVID-19 deaths, and in such cases attributing deaths to a single cause is at best questionable,” Roderick Little, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Michigan, told USA TODAY.

Bob Anderson, the National Center for Health Statistics chief of mortality statistics, told AFP Fact Check that in all the agency’s reported data, COVID-19 was the underlying cause of death.

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“These data come from death certificates, and the death certificate is designed to only capture information on causes of death,” Anderson said, explaining that COVID-19 would then not be "an incidental or trivial factor."

"The underlying cause of death is the condition that began the chain of events that ultimately led to the person’s death," Jeff Lancashire, acting associate director for communications at the National Center for Health Statistics, told PolitiFact.

"In 92% of all deaths that mention COVID-19, COVID-19 is listed as the underlying cause of death," Lancashire said.

“It’s kind of ridiculous, because if they took the time to just read, they’d understand a little better what’s going on here,” Anderson also said.

A majority of Americans suffer from some form of chronic illness that would be counted as a comorbidity in a COVID-19 death, according to the CDC. Other conditions, such as heart failure and respiratory issues, can develop over the course of infection with the coronavirus.

“This is completely unsurprising, as it’s pretty rare that someone wouldn’t have at least one issue caused by coronavirus prior to their death, and all it means is that in 94% of cases people who had COVID-19 also developed other issues, or had other problems at the same time,” epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz wrote on Medium, explaining the CDC's comorbidity statistics and examining the response to them.

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Some of the most frequently cited conditions in coronavirus-related deaths as reported in the CDC data included respiratory failure, vascular and unspecified dementia, heart failure, renal failure and intentional and unintentional injury.

While the CDC data is accurately indicating that people with preexisting and chronic conditions are more likely to die from COVID-19, the conclusion that many online have then drawn about the severity of the virus is incorrect.

Lagging statistics

The CDC's comorbidities data is collected from state and local sources. The statistics can thus lag by several weeks and do not represent the most comprehensive analysis of the pandemic's impact.

But nationwide data on COVID-19 is refreshed at least weekly, so these comorbidity statistics were not part of a "quiet" update.

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“I think a more reliable way of assessing the deaths attributable to Covid is to look at the excess over historical overall death rates,” Little suggested. The U.S. has so far had more than 200,000 more deaths than it would in an average year, according to a Science Alert examination of CDC data.

"When we try to understand that, COVID-19 is the most rational and likely explanation. If you don't believe it's COVID-19, try to pinpoint why this year has been so different than any other. Why would a new disease that kills people not be the cause?" argued Justin Lessler, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University.

Our ruling: False

It is false and misleading to claim that only 6% of reported coronavirus deaths were the result of COVID-19. While comorbidities often exacerbate a person's illness from the coronavirus, it is incorrect to state that they are the cause of death rather than the viral infection. We rate this claim FALSE.

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