What the CDC death report really says, according to Fauci

Experts unequivocally say that at least 180,000 people have died from COVID-19.

September 1, 2020, 7:22 PM

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report is being twisted by conspiracy theorists to imply the COVID-19 death toll is not as serious as it sounds, health experts say. In response, Dr. Anthony Fauci and other medical authorities say unequivocally that at least 180,000 Americans have died because of this virus.

And if anything, the figure is likely an undercount, say health experts.

"Let there not be any confusion," Fauci said after President Donald Trump retweeted an article that inaccurately suggested the real number of COVID-19 deaths is 9,000. "It's not 9,000 deaths from COVID-19. It's 180,000-plus deaths," Fauci told Good Morning America. "The point that the CDC was trying to make was that a certain percentage of [deaths] had nothing else but COVID," Fauci said.

"That does not mean that someone who has hypertension, or diabetes who dies of COVID didn't die of COVID-19. They did."

The report, which was published Aug. 26 and is part of the CDC's standard weekly data update to the public, looks at death certificates and noted that COVID-19 was the only cause of death listed in 6% of deaths involving the coronavirus.

But some have misinterpreted this figure in two ways, by suggesting that only 6% of COVID-19 deaths are from COVID-19, and that only people with preexisting conditions are at risk of serious illness. Neither of these interpretations is correct, say experts.

A spokesperson for the mortality branch of the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of the CDC, told ABC News that death certificates typically list any causes or conditions that contributed to mortality.

"These causes are entered into the death certificate by a physician, medical examiner, or coroner," the NCHS spokesperson said. "Death certificates may have one or more causes or conditions listed, as determined based on the medical expertise of that professional."

The NCHS defines "underlying cause of death" as "the condition that began the chain of events that ultimately led to the person’s death."

According to the NCHS, in 92% of all deaths that mention COVID-19, COVID-19 is listed as the underlying cause of death. There were 161,392 such death certificates as of Aug. 22, the NCHS found. On 94% of death certificates that mention COVID-19, an additional condition is also listed, such as diabetes, hypertension, pneumonia or respiratory failure.

PHOTO: A general view of the Centers for Disease Control headquarters in Atlanta, April 23, 2020.
A general view of the Centers for Disease Control headquarters in Atlanta, April 23, 2020.
Tami Chappell/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

While death certificates can help scientists understand trends, they are not perfect. States and municipalities have different reporting requirements, some more rigorous than others.

The CDC and World Health Organization have long stated that people with underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, hypertensive disease and respiratory disease, are at higher risk for severe cases of COVID-19 and death.

But health experts warn that the suggestion that only people with preexisting conditions will be severely sickened or killed by COVID-19 ignores the fact that 45% of Americans have underlying conditions that put them at risk of developing serious illness if they are infected with coronavirus.

Many patients who landed in the hospital with COVID-19 did not know that they had an underlying condition prior to being hospitalized, medical experts say. Then there are the patients whose contributing causes of death, such as cardiac arrest, were likely triggered by a COVID-19 infection.

Johns Hopkins University, which keeps its own up-to-date COVID statistics, has reported more than 6 million COVID infections and 183,000 deaths in the United States.

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