A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report released last week has quickly become yet another cause for public controversy and confusion. Why? Because the coronavirus data — which showed that 94% of people who die of COVID-19 also have preexisting conditions — has been widely misinterpreted by many (including, of course, our President).
For those who egregiously assert that COVID-19 deaths are overreported, this served as evidence that most of the people who died after being infected with coronavirus were actually already sick beforehand and that COVID-19 itself has only actually killed only around 9,000 people in the US. Here’s everything you need to know to remain on the logical side of this conversation.
The report released by the CDC was a breakdown of COVID-19 fatalities in the U.S. from February to August, based on death certificates. First of all, this data is considered “provisional,” because these counts may not match counts from other sources, such as data from county health departments, the CDC stated in the report. That doesn’t mean the information is irrelevant, it just means that it’s subject to change. The CDC considers death certificates to be reliable sources of information because they include demographic details that state reporting agencies don’t, which makes them useful in figuring out what other factors (e.g.: like age, race, and underlying health conditions) may have contributed to a person’s death.
As mentioned, the data shows that 94% of people who’ve died with COVID-19 listed as their cause of death in that time period also had pre-existing conditions. Those comorbidities listed include everything from cardiac arrest to respiratory failure. But the first thing you want to keep in mind is that while cardiac arrest may ultimately kill a person, contracting coronavirus will likely act as a catalyst that sparks the cardiac episode.
This data requires skillful expert interpretation in order to be useful and understandable and, unfortunately, it was quickly cited on social media as proof that COVID-19 is not that deadly, and that it only actually kills 6% of otherwise healthy people. It all went down over the weekend when Trump retweeted a post about the low fatality rate posted by Mel Q, a figure associated with QAnon, a group of far-right conspiracy theorists, thus prompting a maelstrom of misinformation, Forbes reported.
Twitter removed the post, but not before the rumor mill picked up the erroneous idea that fewer than 10,000 people have died of COVID-19 and that the rest of the fatalities were because those people were already old or in bad health, Forbes reported. Actual infectious disease experts are desperately tried to weigh in with credible interpretations. “Another day, another misinterpretation going ‘viral,’” tweeted Anirban Maitra, a Houston-based respiratory physician and professor of pathology at MD Cancer Center.
Maitra went on to explain the data, stating that tens of thousands of the comorbidities listed in the CDC data (such as respiratory illness) are a direct result of COVID-19. The thing is that preexisting conditions are not always serious and even chronic diseases are common — 60% of Americans have them — so the fact that most of the people who died of COVID-19 also had another condition is not exactly newsworthy, as far as this newsperson is concerned. Some of the preexisting conditions listed, according to experts, are super common. For context, obesity was listed as a preexisting condition for over 5,000 of the deaths, but over 40% of Americans are considered obese.
What does the CDC data actually tell us? That more people than usual are dying because of COVID-19. Most of the people who’ve died weren’t in perfect health when they died, a data point which should be surprising to no one.