A statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about coronavirus deaths in the United States has sparked a wave of confusion on social media.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, was the “only cause mentioned” on death certificates in 6% of deaths involving the virus, the CDC said last week.

Some people mistakenly took that to mean the remaining 94% of coronavirus-related deaths were caused by other underlying health conditions and not COVID-19.

The misconception went viral on social media; Twitter removed a tweet on Sunday that promoted the false interpretation of the CDC’s data, which President Donald Trump shared to his 85.6 million followers, media outlets reported.

What the CDC’s update really means is that 94% of the people who died from the coronavirus had at least one other health condition, in addition to COVID-19, that could have contributed to their passing — not that the additional factor was the sole reason for it.

In fact, the CDC mentions that “for deaths with conditions or causes in addition to COVID-19, on average, there were 2.6 additional conditions or causes per death.” This aligns with what the agency has been saying all along.

People over the age of 65 and those with underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease and respiratory issues have a higher risk of severe COVID-19 and death from it.

“Those saying ‘only 6% die from COVID-19 alone,’ or some derivation thereof, don’t understand how infectious diseases work. Many are not operating in good faith, & are the same people who have downplayed this pandemic since February,” Ryan McNamara, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, said on Twitter.

Been seeing folks discuss the “6% only died of COVID-19 alone”, and thought I’d have something productive to add since I’m an HIV virologist by training.
After years of virus spread, and in the absence of treatment, a patient infected with HIV will develop AIDS. (1/4)

— Ryan McNamara (@Ryan_Mac_Phd) August 31, 2020

McNamara tried to explain the meaning behind the data by using HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, as an example. He said that T cells in the immune system that search for and destroy harmful viruses and bacteria are “depleted” in people with AIDS.

This can allow pathogens “to spread unchecked” and tumors to grow; “hence pneumonia & AIDS-associated cancers are leading causes of death in HIV+ patients,” McNamara wrote.

“For SARS-CoV-2, the assault it elicits on the lungs can greatly exacerbate other pre-existing conditions. So things like cardiac arrest, renal failure, liver failure, sepsis, lung scarring, etc. can all occur post-infection with SARS-CoV-2, leading to death.”

Put another way, if a person with diabetes gets into a fatal car accident, it would be misleading to say that individual died because of their diabetes, rather than because of their resulting injuries.

The CDC says that COVID-19 deaths are labeled with ICD-10 codes, for which there are dozens listed on their website. Some of the codes include respiratory failure, hypertensive diseases, diabetes, renal failure, cardiac arrhythmia, influenza and pneumonia, adult respiratory distress syndrome and chronic lower respiratory diseases — all of which the coronavirus has been shown to cause.

“In 6%, the U07.1 ICD-10 [code for coronavirus] is the ONLY code listed. Tens of thousands have ICD-10 codes for respiratory diseases that are the DIRECT effect of #COVID19. Many patients had other co-morbidities ranging from obesity to diabetes (which placed them at higher risk to begin with),” Dr. Anirban Maitra, a pancreatic cancer researcher and gastrointestinal pathologist at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, wrote on Twitter.

What’s more, at least 200,000 more people have died in the U.S. since March compared to death counts from the same time period last year, a New York Times analysis of CDC’s data found. “This is about 60,000 higher than the number of deaths that have been directly linked to the coronavirus.”

As of Aug. 31, there were more than 6 million confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. and more than 183,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

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Katie Camero is a McClatchy National Real-Time reporter based in Miami focusing on science. She’s an alumna of Boston University and has reported for the Wall Street Journal, Science, and The Boston Globe.


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