Why you might have misinterpreted that viral ‘only 6 percent’ COVID-19 statistic

Coronavirus

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — One statistic from a routine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on COVID-19 went viral and turned into a trending topic on social media.

The reason for its sudden online spread? An apparent misinterpretation of what the number means.

The CDC issued its weekly demographic and geographic update along with its provisional COVID-19 death counts in the U.S.

And tucked into the text that explains Table 3, the conditions contributing to COVID-19 deaths by age group, was a paragraph with one key line: “For 6% of the deaths, COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned.”

That sentence spawned hundreds of tweets and retweets with some skeptics arguing it amounted to an admission that the disease isn’t causing all the deaths for which it’s being blamed. Even President Donald Trump retweeted a person citing the statistic before Twitter removed it. Suddenly, “Only 6%” became a trending topic.

That sentence contains a key phrase — “only cause.”

In other words, 6 percent of the deaths in the U.S. had no reported comorbidities — or, additional conditions and health issues that can be either exacerbated by or developed after a COVID-19 infection.

The next sentence in the CDC text adds that among deaths with conditions or causes in addition to COVID-19, there were an average of 2.6 more conditions or causes per death.

The CDC’s provisional death count of 161,392 in the U.S. trails the Johns Hopkins University counter, which recorded more than 183,000 deaths as of Monday, because of delays in processing. Of those in the CDC count, more than 68,000 deaths listed influenza or pneumonia as comorbidities while 54,803 had respiratory failure and 35,272 had hypertensive disease.

A more accurate measure is the underlying cause of death — which the World Health Organization defines as the disease or injury that “initiated the train of events leading directly to death.”

Deeper in the same report, the CDC says that when COVID-19 appears on a death certificate, it’s the underlying cause for more than 95 percent of those deaths.

Similar data exists at the statewide level, with North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services figures as of last Thursday showing 7 percent of the more than 2,500 lab-confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the state did not have any high-risk underlying health conditions.

Source: NCDHHS Risk Factors for Severe Illness from COVID-19, August 25, 2020

While 67 percent did have at least one, the data for the remaining 26 percent was missing.

The state reports that 48 percent of those COVID-19 deaths indicated cardiovascular disease while 35 percent had diabetes, 26 percent had chronic lung disease and 20 percent had kidney disease. Another 15 percent had another unspecified comorbidity.

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