FILE - In this July 6, 2020, file photo, Dr. Joseph Varon, right, leads a team as they try to save the life of a patient unsuccessfully inside the Coronavirus Unit at United Memorial Medical Center, Monday, July 6, 2020, in Houston. The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus topped 200,000 Tuesday, Sept. 22, a figure unimaginable eight months ago when the scourge first reached the world’s richest nation with its sparkling laboratories, top-flight scientists and towering stockpiles of medicines and emergency supplies. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

Post misleads on Australian COVID-19 death data

AAP FactCheck October 6, 2020

The Statement

A Facebook post claims a Department of Health report reveals that COVID-19 death figures for Australia have been dramatically overstated and the real tally is less than one-tenth of the official count.

The post, headlined “There is ‘NO’ Covid Pandemic,” claims that the COVID-19 Epidemiology Report “proves with its own evidence the 29 August 2020 deaths were ‘not’ 600! The true Covid deaths are only 54!”.

It goes on to claim, “The deaths recorded show 91% of deaths had massive ‘Comorbidity’ diseases of chronic cardiac disease, diabetes and chronic respiratory disease or dying of old age. 54 deaths in a 25 million population is ‘not’ a pandemic!”.

At the time of writing, the post had been shared more than 325 times and received more than 35,000 views.

A Facebook post
 A post claims a Department of Health report reveals COVID-19 death figures have been overstated. 

The Analysis

The Facebook post is one of a series of claims circulating on social media – see examples here, here and here – claiming that COVID-19 deaths are far fewer than the numbers being reported by governments.

These posts often misrepresent what comorbidities are and how they are catalogued in relation to COVID-19-linked deaths. The latest post reinterprets sections of an Australian Department of Health report on Communicable Diseases Intelligence to make incorrect claims that there is no pandemic and that only nine per cent of Australian COVID-19 deaths were caused by the virus.

A comorbidity means the existence of two or more diseases in a person at one time, according to a 2016 paper by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. These diseases may be unrelated but many share common risk factors.

The Facebook post claims that the fatal COVID-19 cases were also suffering “massive comorbidity diseases”. A comorbidity is not by definition a fatal illness – it can include such conditions as obesity, diabetes, arthritis, asthma and back pain, according to the Department of Health report (table 7, page 16).

A spokesperson for the Department of Health told AAP FactCheck via email that the fatalities listed in the August 2 report are directly linked to COVID-19.

“State and territory health departments only report to the NNDSS (National Notifiable Disease Surveillance System) COVID-19 deaths where it is considered that COVID-19 was the primary or a contributing cause of their death,” the spokesperson said.

The post also incorrectly quotes “91% of deaths” as having comorbidities, when this figure in the report relates to all hospitalised patients whose data was captured by facilities using the sentinel events tracking system (see report page 14).

Dr Craig Dalton, an epidemiologist at the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Newcastle, said the post contained false information.

He said the Department of Health report “lists the comorbidities that fatal cases had at the time of death”.

“These included a wide range of illnesses including diabetes and obesity – two diseases that many people are diagnosed with in their 20s or 30s but go on to live with for many years. Many of the other diseases listed could allow people to live for decades,” he told AAP FactCheck via email.

“It can be assumed that all of the people who require (intensive) care for significant lung damage from COVID-19 who have a fatal outcome would not have died at that time if they had not had COVID-19.”

Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, an epidemiologist from the University of Wollongong, described the post as misleading.

“(It) is basically disinformation. Broadly we would expect most people who die of anything to have more than one contributing factor,” he told AAP FactCheck in an email.

Mr Meyerowitz-Katz has written about similar claims on US COVID-19 death data and concluded they were wrong and misleading.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has also published guidelines for certifying deaths due to COVID-19 and notes that the coronavirus should be included whenever it was a contributing factor.

“The new coronavirus strain (COVID-19) should be recorded on the medical cause of death certificate for ALL decedents where the disease caused, or is assumed to have caused, or contributed to death,” the guidelines state.

In a previous AAP FactCheck relating to CDC COVID-19 death figures and comorbidities, the US National Center of Health Statistics noted that many comorbidities develop as a result of COVID-19.

“These causes may include chronic conditions like diabetes or hypertension,” the US National Center of Health Statistics told AAP FactCheck at the time. “They may also include acute conditions that occurred as a result of COVID-19, such as pneumonia or respiratory failure.”

The Coronavirus Unit at United Memorial Medical Center in the US.
 A Facebook post claims ‘real’ COVID-19 deaths are far fewer than those reported by governments. 

The Verdict

AAP FactCheck found the claims in the Facebook post to be false. The post incorrectly claims that there “is no COVID pandemic” by misinterpreting comorbidity data from the Australian Department of Health report to wrongly suggest there were fewer coronavirus-related deaths than those reported in official figures.

False – The primary claims within the post are inaccurate.

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