Here’s why the ‘Only 6%’ COVID-19 viral trend is completely uninformed

only 6% coronavirus CDC
Photo via NIAID/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Did only 6% of the reported deaths—or, just less than 10,000 people in the U.S.—actually die from COVID-19, instead of the more than 183,000 that’s been reported? Or is the “only 6%” storyline that began trending in late August completely misleading? 

It’s actually a misleading and manipulated data point, because, as experts continue to say, the coronavirus is responsible for all of the coronavirus-related deaths.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new data for provisional COVID-19 death counts on Aug. 26, it led to memes and tweets claiming the CDC was quietly backpedaling on how many people died from the coronavirus.

Despite allegations made primarily by conspiracy theorists associated with the QAnon movement, the CDC still reports that more than 160,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19. The new report merely provides updated data about what types of health conditions and contributing causes were identified at the time of death. 

The CDC collected this new data from death certificates, which it says are the “most reliable source of data and contain information not available anywhere else, including comorbid conditions, race and ethnicity, and place of death.” 

According to the CDC report, the death certificates show that just 6% of people who died from the virus reported COVID-19 as the only cause of death. The other 94% listed other conditions or causes in addition to COVID-19. The CDC says, on average, there were 2.6 additional conditions or causes per COVID-19 death. 

Contributing conditions included:  

  • Influenza and pneumonia
  • Respiratory failure
  • Hypertensive disease
  • Diabetes
  • Vascular and unspecified dementia
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Heart failure
  • Renal failure
  • Intentional and unintentional injury, poisoning and other adverse events

The Associated Press reported that Dr. Robert Anderson, who oversees the CDC’s death statistics work, clarified in a statement that COVID-19 was still the underlying cause of death in these cases, even if the patient suffered from other diseases or health conditions. 

“The underlying cause of death is the condition that began the chain of events that ultimately led to the person’s death,” Anderson said. “In 92% of all deaths that mention COVID-19, COVID-19 is listed as the underlying cause of death.”

As Lifehacker thoroughly explained, death certificates ask medical professionals to first list the immediate cause of death and then list all of the underlying causes, because multiple illnesses can contribute to a death. 

For example, a COVID-19 patient could develop pneumonia as a complication. If they died, pneumonia would be the immediate cause of death, and COVID-19 would be the underlying cause.

If a cancer patient developed COVID-19 because of their weakened immune system and died, COVID-19 would be the immediate cause, and cancer would be the underlying cause. 

The “only 6%” online rhetoric capitalizes off other viral text posts that have been circulating for months, in which alleged loved ones of people who died from COVID-19 claim that hospitals have lied on the death certificate about the cause of death. 

Dr. Sally Aiken, the president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, told the Scientific American that she rejects those claims because medical examiners are “designed to be independent entities.” 

“It always cracks me up,” Aiken said. “Medical examiners and coroners aren’t organized enough to have a conspiracy.”

Dr. Mary Fowkes, the chief of autopsy services at Mount Sinai in New York, told the Scientific American that, if anything, COVID-related deaths are actually being underreported—not overreported. 

Sources: CDC, Associated Press, Lifehacker, Scientific American

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