Another day, another misinterpretation of scientific information going viral.
Last week, the CDC released a report that showed out of all of the COVID-19 deaths, 6% were caused only by the virus itself. Immediately, this information started circulating on Twitter and other social media that the numbers have been wrong, that only 6% of people have actually died from COVID, you know the drill. Even President Trump chimed in to perpetuate this misinterpretation, in a Tweet that has since been removed. (by Twitter.)
Since so many people have decided to take this as fact and run with it, I thought it might be time for a simple lesson in biology. Because, if I see one more person say “The CDC said only 6% of people died because of COVID,” I truly may lose it.
First, repeat after me: “This new info they released does DOES NOT mean only 6% of all these people died from COVID.” To explain it better, let’s first define a very key term: COMORBIDITY.
COMORBIDITY: The presence of two or more diseases present in the same person at the same time. It means that a person has multiple co-existing conditions.
Next, let’s look at a death certificate, and how cause of death is determined and the death certificate is filled out.
When a coroner determines cause of death for an individual, they typically start with the most immediate cause and move backwards to determine a sequence of events. The thing that stops their heart from actually beating and causes their death is going to be listed first. Then, they will work backwards to see what started that chain of events. For example:
EXAMPLE 1: Bob is in a car accident. Bob sustains injuries that put him in a coma. His organs begin to fail and he dies from septic shock. The IMMEDIATE cause of death on his death certificate will NOT say “Bob died from injuries sustained in a car wreck.” Bob’s death certificate will say he died of Sepsis. However, if not for the car accident, none of these other events would have occurred. Meaning, the car accident is what started the chain of events that led to him being in a coma and becoming septic, which caused his death. While his death certificate will list the immediate cause of death as “sepsis,” everyone who knew him would say he died in a car accident. Right?
EXAMPLE 2: Ann has Type 2 Diabetes. Ann contracts COVID and becomes very ill. In addition to all the virus symptoms that are wrecking her body, her blood sugar levels spike, because that’s what happens when a diabetic person contracts a virus. Unable to keep her numbers down, Ann is admitted to the hospital for diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) The amount of glucose in her blood causes her organs to start working overtime and puts too much stress on her heart. She has a heart attack and dies. Her cause of death would be listed as a heart attack, probably followed by DKA and then COVID. But the underlying cause of everything leading up to that event was her being infected by COVID. It started the sequence of events that lead to her death. None of that would have happened to her at that point in time had she not contracted the virus. While COVID would not likely be listed as the immediate cause of death, it is still listed as a contributing cause, because it was the catalyst that put this chain of events in motion. In short, Ann died because she contracted COVID.
Now, might it be fair to say that out of these deaths, some people are dying WITH COVID as opposed to FROM COVID? That’s a possibility. If you have terminal lung cancer, you’re dying, whether or not you contract COVID. However, if this patient did contract the virus and die immediately after, COVID may be listed higher on the cause of death hierarchy than the terminal lung disease. In some instances, particularly in long-term care facilities, COVID could be listed as the only cause of death. In these cases, there’s really no way to know for sure. Because, would that person still have died? Yes. But might they have lived longer had they not contracted the virus? Maybe, maybe not. So cases like these may skew the numbers slightly. But for the most part, COVID is likely going to be the root cause of death.
So, the new CDC info means this: 94% of people who have died had at least one other health condition, IN ADDITION TO COVID, that could have contributed to their death – NOT that the additional condition was the sole reason for their death.
It means that out of the 180,000 + deaths, in 94% – COVID-19 caused their body to shut down because the immune response was already weakened due to a comorbidity. In 6% – COVID-19 caused their body to shutdown with no comorbidity. That’s it. They are ALL still deaths from COVID-19.
COVID-19 is real, y’all. The U.S. has now surpassed 6 million cases. Approximately 184,000 Americans have died. That is more than deaths from World War 1, Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan and Iraq COMBINED (according to DOD and VA records.) It is now listed as the #3 cause of death in the U.S. We need to listen to scientists and medical professionals. Yes, sometimes the stance changes as they learn more about the virus. Guys…that’s what we WANT to happen. That means they’re open to changing their guidance once they have more knowledge on the subject. That’s how science works. We all have to keep reminding ourselves…COVID-19 is a new thing to us. There will be trials and errors along the way, but I still believe in science and medicine as the best sources of information in a time like this.
Bottom line: If contracting COVID set in motion the events that led to a person’s death sooner rather than later, they died because of COVID. Comorbidities do not change that.
And that’s on the 6%.