The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t drastically reduced the number of deaths attributable to COVID-19, but posts making that bogus claim have been circulating widely — with the help of President Donald Trump, who retweeted one such claim on Aug. 30.
Twitter has since removed the original tweet, which came from an account dedicated to the pro-Trump conspiracy theory QAnon. But the claim is still readily available on all the major social media platforms. In fact, the same QAnon account that posted the now-deleted tweet includes a screenshot version featuring the president’s retweet.
The post Trump highlighted said: “This week the CDC quietly updated the Covid number to admit that only 6% of all the 153,504 deaths recorded actually died from Covid. That’s 9,210 deaths. The other 94% had 2 to 3 other serious illnesses and the overwhelming majority were of very advanced age.”
But that’s not what the CDC information says.
In weekly updates provided on the CDC’s website, the agency includes information on additional conditions present in patients who died with COVID-19. These other illnesses or conditions found to be present in a patient are called comorbidities. The agency also includes a chart detailing the number of patients with each additional condition.
For the week referenced in the claim, the CDC explained that the chart “shows the types of health conditions and contributing causes mentioned in conjunction with deaths involving coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). For 6% of the deaths, COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned.”
That means that 6% of those who died with COVID-19 through Aug. 15 didn’t have any other reported conditions.
It does not mean that the CDC has “quietly updated” the number of deaths associated with COVID-19 to a fraction of what had been reported. It’s also not new information; the agency has been providing the same information since May.
Asked about Trump’s tweet during a press briefing on Aug. 31, though, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said that “he was highlighting new CDC information that came out that was worth noting.”
At that time, the total number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. had passed 183,000, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, and the total number of cases across the country had passed 6 million.
McEnany said that the president was not trying to downplay the death toll.
The following morning, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, clarified what the CDC data mean.
He noted that the 6% figure includes cases where COVID-19 was listed as the only cause of death. “That does not mean that someone who has hypertension or diabetes who dies of Covid didn’t die of Covid-19. They did,” Fauci said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
“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,” Fauci said.
Other versions of the claim are misleading, rather than being strictly false. One example is a headline on the conservative outlet Gateway Pundit, which announced: “This Week CDC Quietly Updated COVID-19 Numbers – Only 9,210 Americans Died From COVID-19 Alone – Rest Had Different Other Serious Illnesses.”
But the data on which all of this is based come from death certificates, which list any causes or conditions that contributed to a person’s death. In the case of COVID-19, the disease often causes other serious conditions, such as pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome. Those two conditions are among the ailments with the highest counts in the CDC’s comorbidity chart. Some long-term conditions that increase the risk for severe COVID-19, such as diabetes or hypertension, were also listed.
The underlying cause of death, however, is the condition that started the chain of events that led to a person’s death. In 92% of all deaths that mention COVID-19, that disease is listed as the underlying cause of death, Jeff Lancashire, spokesman for the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, told FactCheck.org in an email.
As the epidemiologist and science writer Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz explained in a recent post, “it’s pretty rare that someone wouldn’t have at least one issue caused by coronavirus prior to their death, and all it means is that in 94% of cases people who had COVID-19 also developed other issues, or had other problems at the same time.”
Meyerowitz-Katz notes that influenza and pneumonia are listed as the most common concurrent diseases, which isn’t surprising. “Similarly,” he writes, “respiratory failure, something that the coronavirus directly causes, is listed here as a ‘comorbidity’ that 55,000 people had.”
So, it’s misleading to say that 94% of those who died with COVID-19 also had other ailments without explaining that the disease causes other serious illnesses. And it’s wrong to claim that only 6% of the recorded COVID-19 deaths were caused by the disease.
Update, Sept. 2: In an interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham that aired Sept. 1, Trump made this false claim himself, saying, “I saw a statistic come out the other day, talking about only 6% of the people actually died from COVID, which is a very interest[ing], that they died for — from other reasons.”
Ingraham corrected him, explaining that those who die from COVID-19 often have other conditions, but COVID-19 “might ultimately have been the key morbidity.”
“But it’s an interesting statistic,” Trump responded.