FactCheck Social Media

Claims on CDC data for COVID-19 incorrect, say experts

2020-09-09 12:42:57

The Statement

An Instagram post claims that a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report “shows that 94% of COVID-19 deaths in the US had underlying medical conditions”.

The September 1 post features an image of a building with a CDC sign and is accompanied by a caption which reads, “It’s official! ITS (sic) A SCAM. 94% of listed COVID deaths had 2 or MORE severe and life threatening co morbidities.They were also of a ‘very advanced age’. #itsover.”

An Instagram post
 A post claims a report shows that 94% of COVID-19 deaths in the US had underlying medical conditions.

The Analysis

Social media has been circulating claims the CDC “quietly” updated its COVID-19 data and that only six per cent of fatalities were caused solely by the virus with the other 94 per cent having underlying medical conditions. The claims were retweeted by US President Donald Trump before they were removed.

However, a closer look at how deaths are reported in the US shows the claims are incorrect. Experts explained to AAP FactCheck that the CDC data shows 94 per cent of COVID-19 victims had at least one additional factor as well as COVID-19 contributing to their death.

The experts said the post misinterprets how comorbidities, when more than one disease or condition is present in a person at the same time, are recorded in the CDC’s COVID-19 data.

The Instagram post’s claims come from a CDC report which states that six per cent of the deaths from COVID-19 were not associated with comorbidities. The CDC’s weekly updates break down COVID-19 fatalities across the US and one of the tables (table 3) lists comorbidities, which the US agency explains “shows the types of health conditions and contributing causes mentioned in conjunction with deaths involving coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)”.

A CDC report on guidance for certifying COVID-19 deaths explains that cause of death is “the disease or injury which initiated the train of morbid events leading directly to death”. In the US death certificates require the immediate cause of death to be listed first with underlying causes stated underneath.

Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, an epidemiologist from the University of Wollongong, said the post misrepresents the CDC data.

“The table that everyone is referring to with the six per cent figure, actually shows that many if not most of the COVID-19 patients who died in the US had at least one issue other than COVID-19,” told AAP FactCheck via email.

“However, many of the things in the table – like ARDS or respiratory failure – are caused by COVID-19 itself. It is factually incorrect to say that only six per cent of US COVID-19 deaths were caused by COVID-19.”

Mr Meyerowitz-Katz has written about the post’s claims and concluded they were misleading and wrong.

“If only six per cent of people who died of COVID-19 actually died from the infection, with the others dying from other things while they had coronavirus, it would reduce the death toll of the dread disease substantially. Sadly, this is complete and utter nonsense,” he wrote in a blog post on August 31.

The US National Center of Health Statistics (NCHS) told AAP FactCheck via email the post’s claims were incorrect.

“The underlying cause of death is the condition that began the chain of events that ultimately led to the person’s death,” the NCHS said in a statement.

“In 94 per cent of deaths with COVID-19, other conditions are listed in addition to COVID-19. These causes may include chronic conditions like diabetes or hypertension. They may also include acute conditions that occurred as a result of COVID-19, such as pneumonia or respiratory failure.”

Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also explained the CDC data in an interview on ABC Television’s Good Morning America (video mark 1mins 18sec).

“The point the CDC was trying to make was that a certain percentage of (deaths) had nothing else but just COVID. That does not mean that someone who has hypertension or diabetes who dies of COVID, didn’t die of COVID-19. They did.

“So the numbers you’ve been hearing – the 180,000-plus deaths – are real deaths from COVID-19. Let (there) not be any confusion about that. It’s not 9000 deaths from COVID-19.”

Social media claims about the CDC data have been debunked here, here, here and here.

An illustration shows 'ultrastructural morphology' of coronaviruses.
 The CDC releases weekly updates, breaking down COVID-19 fatalities across the US. 

The Verdict

Based on the evidence, AAP FactCheck found the claims in the Instagram post to be false. The post incorrectly claims that only six per cent of recorded COVID-19 deaths were caused by the virus.

False – The primary claims within the post are inaccurate.

* AAP FactCheck is accredited by the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network, which promotes best practice through a stringent and transparent Code of Principles. https://aap.com.au/