No, the CDC Has Not “Quietly Updated” COVID-19 Death Estimates
No, the CDC Has Not “Quietly Updated” COVID-19 Death Estimates

No, the CDC Has Not “Quietly Updated” COVID-19 Death Estimates

An online conspiracy theory retweeted by President Donald Trump misconstrued data regarding the number of people who have died from the coronavirus.

Amanda Heidt
Amanda Heidt
Sep 1, 2020

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The phrase “only 6%” trended on Twitter over the weekend after a series of posts accused the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of quietly reducing the number of deaths due to COVID-19 from nearly 154,000 to a little more than 9,200, or 6 percent of that initial total.

Several of the posts, which were widely shared across social media networks before being taken down for violating platform policies, were linked to followers of the QAnon conspiracy group. President Donald Trump retweeted at least two, and his senior legal adviser Jenna Ellis linked to an article from the fringe site Gateway Pundit that remains live, The Hill reports.

The first mentions seem to have come from an August 29 Facebook post, according to VineSight, an organization that uses artificial intelligence to identify misinformation on the web. That post claimed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had “quietly updated the Covid number to admit that only 6% of all the 153,504 deaths recorded actually died from Covid,” while another post stated more bluntly that the update proved “their numbers are so fucked that they are off by a whopping 94%.” 

The data being discussed were originally shared on August 26 by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), which is run by the CDC. On that day, the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 in the US was listed as 164,280, although the widely circulated posts included an older estimate of 153,504 deaths. That total has since increased to 182,622 as of August 31.

Under a subheading labeled “comorbidities”—additional conditions people experienced in addition to a primary diagnosis such as COVID-19—the NCHS shared that “for 6% of the deaths, COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned” on a death certificate, meaning that only 6 percent of individuals had no underlying health complications other than COVID-19 reported when they died. The statement continued, “for deaths with conditions or causes in addition to COVID-19, on average, there were 2.6 additional conditions or causes per death.” 

When a person dies, there can be multiple reasons listed on their death certificate, and in fact, it’s rare for people not to have more than one cause, the Associated Press reports.

This tracks with what is known about the virus, that people with certain conditions such as cancer, diabetes, or asthma are at a higher risk of contracting SARS-CoV-2, as are older individuals, who are also more likely to have other health problems.

“A small number of people have COVID ascribed as the sole cause of death. It may be they had no comorbidities or they were just not noted,” Myron Cohen, director of the Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tells PolitiFact. “However, it is also clear that advanced age and several other underlying diseases lead to bad outcomes with COVID infections. The people dying were not going to die but for the acquisition of COVID.” 

Mark Halstead, a sports team physician at Washington University, described a hypothetical scenario in a Facebook post on August 30. Someone coming to the hospital with COVID-19 would certainly have the virus listed as a primary diagnosis, but if they then required a ventilator, respiratory failure would also be listed as a cause of death. If a person were to decline to such an extent that they went into cardiac arrest and died, that too would be listed on a death certificate. “The COVID infection started the process but that led to the heart and lungs failing, which killed that person,” Halstead says.

The misleading tweets and Facebook posts come at a time when the CDC is being criticized for what some perceive as a tendency to bend to political pressure, The New York Times reports. Last week, the agency released a revised set of testing recommendations stating that people who had been in close contact with someone confirmed to have COVID-19 did not necessarily need to be tested themselves. The resulting backlash caused CDC Director Robert Redfield to walk back the change, saying such individuals “may be considered” for testing, an ambiguity that has left medical professionals unsure of how best to advise their patients. 

When asked at a press briefing on Monday, August 31, if the President was trying to downplay the death toll with the retweets, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said, “No, he was highlighting new CDC information that came out that was worth noting.”