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Every week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention releases an updated outline of provisional COVID-19 death counts, based on death certificate data. Usually, these reports don’t garner an inordinate amount of attention, but a line in the most recent report — noting that “for 6% of the deaths, COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned” — has become the source of controversy and confusion.
The statistic means that of the death certificates for people who died of coronavirus, 6 percent did not report any underlying conditions, nor any of the common complications caused by the virus, which include pneumonia, respiratory failure, and heart failure. However, taken out of context, the line was misinterpreted to mean that only that 6 percent of documented COVID-19 deaths were actually caused by the virus. The misleading statistic was shared widely on social media, most prominently by a QAnon conspiracy theorist who tweeted that the CDC was finally “admitting” that “only 6” percent of reported coronavirus deaths were actually from COVID-19. Before Twitter could delete the tweet for violating the platform’s rules, Donald Trump had retweeted it alongside a related falsehood, claiming that the real death toll from the virus is only around 9,000 — as opposed to the official record, which is currently over 183,000.
As Lifehacker reports, the misinterpretation of CDC data can be traced to a misunderstanding of death certificates. On each certificate, doctors can list the immediate cause of death, as well as any underlying causes that led to death, which the World Health Organization defines as the disease or injury that “initiated the train of events leading directly to death.” For example, if someone has liver disease, and then contracts COVID-19 and dies, liver disease would be an underlying cause, and COVID-19 would be the immediate cause. If someone contracts COVID-19, and then dies of adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) — a common complication of coronavirus — COVID-19 would be the underlying cause, and ARDS would be the immediate cause.
In their most recent report, the CDC wrote: “For the majority of deaths where COVID-19 is reported on the death certificate (approximately 95%), COVID-19 is selected as the underlying cause of death.” This means that the vast majority of people who died after contracting coronavirus developed a complication, which ultimately killed them. According to the CDC, most patients had an average of 2.6 other conditions and causes of death listed on their death certificates in addition to coronavirus — but that doesn’t mean that they did not die from COVID-19.
Despite what conspiracy theorists may say, the CDC is not overcounting coronavirus deaths — if anything, public-health experts believe that the official death count is likely a significant underestimate of the pandemic’s true toll.