The world has been wrestling in the grips of a world-wide pandemic since January. The United States has been hit by the worst of the worst, with now over 6 million infections and over 180,000 deaths related to COVID-19. Recently, the CDC updated their death statistics and headlines have flared with the concept that only 6% of coronavirus deaths were actually attributable to the virus itself. This has led many media outlets to decry preventative measures taken to slow the spread of COVID-19, and accuse Dr. Anthony Fauci and other media outlets of inflating the numbers to frighten and control Americans. If only 6% of the over 180,000 deaths are attributable to the virus, why the panic? Unfortunately, outlets disseminating this information are ignoring how death numbers are actually reported and what the revelation actually means for COVID-19 deaths in the US. It gives people a false sense of security and could stymie efforts to combat the virus. We explore the update per the CDC, what people are saying about it, and what it really means below. 

State of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US up to the end of August

On January 23, 2020 the first positive case was reported in the US, but that number would soon grow exponentially. By February 29th, 24 cases had been reported. By March 29th, cases had begun climbing rapidly and 140,999 cases were already reported. In late March, most schools in the US opted to shutter their physical doors and switch to an online and distance learning model. Some states went into lock-down mode, restricting travel and movement to only vital services like work, health care, or food. By April 29th, 1,041,393 cases had been reported. By May 29th, it was 1,750,854. Although the growing number of cases was alarming, the relatively slow rate at which they increased suggested that lockdown measures were having the intended effect. States began loosening restrictions in mid-June, on the assumption that the curve had been flattened enough that cases were under control. By June 29th, 2,583,054 positive cases were reported. Loosening restrictions turned out to be a grave mistake as numbers began skyrocketing thereafter. So much so that a month later, on July 29th, case numbers had doubled and 4,410,140 cases were reported. By August 31st, cases in the US had surpassed a staggering 6 million. The closest case total for another country is around 3 million in Brazil and India. 

A 3.4% death rate

In March, the World Health Organization confirmed that the death rate for COVID-19 is a whopping 3.4%. The average flu has a death rate closer to 0.1%. In the United states, 182,606 people have died so far. 

Why are people arguing over 6%?

The dispute over the 6% comes from the report that only 6% of those with COVID-19 listed on death certificates have only COVID-19 listed. The other 94% have other contributing factors listed. Certain media outlets have twisted this to mean that the other 94% of deaths were caused by something other than COVID-19, and the death rates had been inflated to scare and control the population. President Donald J Trump retweeted a tweet that made the claim that, “This week the CDC quietly updated the Covid numbers to admit that only 6% of the 153,504 deaths recorded actually died from Covid.

That’s 9,210 deaths.

The other 94% had 2-3 very serious illnesses & the overwhelming majority were of very advanced age.”

The tweet was quickly removed by Twitter for violating policy, and with good reason. While the tweet and charts shared do cite real numbers, they are presented disingenuously and don’t give the full picture or context. 

CDC updates Covid-19 death statistics

The breakdown of co-morbidities as they pertain to COVID-19 deaths

For one, most Americans have pre-existing co-morbidities like diabetes, obesity or hypertension. Thus, when contemplating the risk factors of the US population in general, one must consider that 40% of Americans will fall into the category of, “Pre-existing co-morbidities,” that put them at higher risk of death from COVID-19. But even that isn’t the whole picture. Most of the co-morbidities listed on COVID-19 death certificates are complications caused by the virus itself.  Respiratory distress, pneumonia, and cardiac arrest can all occur because of damage done by the virus. If someone has COVID-19 and the virus damages their heart, which causes a heart attack, the death is rightfully attributed to COVID-19.

Death certificates and COVID-19

A death certificate shows both underlying and contributing factors to a person’s death. For 94% of deaths attributed to COVID-19, it will be listed as an, “underlying,” condition on a death certificate. Death certificates contain 3 parts that a medical examiner or attending physician will fill out. Often, another contributing factor will be included, such as pneumonia or respiratory illness. And on top of that, an acute cause of death will be listed, such as, “cardiac arrest.” For example:

  1.  Underlying condition – COVID-19 (presumed positive or positive)
  2. Contributing factor – respiratory illness (caused by 1)
  3. Acute cause of death – cardiac arrest (caused by 1, contributed to by 2)

In 6% of cases, the sole cause of death is COVID-19, meaning either the person had no underlying complications and the virus was the only detectable illness, or there is incomplete data as to cause of death. 

CDC updates Covid-19 death statistics

Whether 6% or 94%, a cause of death of COVID-19 means the virus contributed to the death

Both both the 6% and 94% only died because of the presence of COVID-19 in their system. Without the virus present, they would not have succumbed to either acute symptoms brought on by the virus or underlying, “pre-existing,” co-morbidities. Whether listed as the primary cause of death, or a contributing factor, COVID-19 is considered a cause of death because the person would not have died without the illness.

A summary of what it means

A Forbes article explains, “If you want to know why the original Tweet was inaccurate or misleading, just read the rest of what the CDC indicated after the 6%: ‘For deaths with conditions or causes in addition to COVID-19, on average, there were 2.6 additional conditions or causes per death.’ Take a gander at what these additional conditions or causes are. They include things such as adult pneumonia, respiratory distress syndrome, respiratory failure, respiratory arrest, other diseases of the respiratory system, and sepsis. Hmmm, these sound very much like the things that Covid-19 can lead to and what can ultimately kill people with severe Covid-19.

So, for example, say a person gets a Covid-19 coronavirus infection, which eventually progresses to pneumonia, ARDS, respiratory distress, other organ failure, and death. Then there’s a decent chance doctors will indicate more than one of these conditions as a cause of death. After all, when you go to the grocery store, come back with a bunch of food and 5,000 rolls of toilet paper, and are asked, ‘where have you been and what have you been doing,’ you don’t tend to just say, ‘I got into the car.’ Instead, you tell the whole story (and maybe share some of the banana bread and toilet paper that you purchased).

CDC updates Covid-19 death statistics

This is a reminder that the virus can trigger a series of events that can ultimately take a person’s life. In fact, with Covid-19 leading to all sorts of problems in the body, the probability is high (say over 90%) that something else will then be recorded as a cause of death in addition to Covid-19. It would actually be unusual to simply put Covid-19 as a cause of death without specifying what led to the patient’s demise.

Thus, the 6% did not mean that ‘only 6%’ of the 161,392 deaths (as of August 26) recorded by the CDC were actually from Covid-19 as [author of the original tweet] Mel Q suggested. No, Covid-19 has killed far more people than that…”

Nothing quiet or shocking about this report

To suggest that the CDC has, “quietly,” blown the lid off a bombshell like this is to misrepresent the CDC reporting process. They, “quietly,” update once a week anyway. This breakdown of COVID-19 related deaths was done in the course of data presentation, and doesn’t represent any sort of whistle-blower bombshell that should change how Americans react to the pandemic. While the numbers are important and interesting, they simply do not make the virus any less deadly or life-changing. It does not suggest that schools should re-open or that travel bans should be lifted. It does, however, give a clearer picture on what sort of damage COVID-19 does to the body and why it has been so deadly. 

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