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Fact-check: Is the government overstating the coronavirus death toll?

Daniel Funke
PolitiFact.com
President Donald Trump

This piece was originally published onPolitiFact.com on Sept. 3, 2020

Donald Trump: “Only 6% of the people actually died from COVID.” The others “died from other reasons.”

PolitiFact’s ruling: Pants on Fire

Here’s why: In the past week, President Donald Trump has repeatedly spread a false claim that COVID-19 is not as deadly as his own public health agencies have reported.

He retweeted a now-deleted post that alleged the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "quietly updated" the number of coronavirus deaths. He shared another tweet from a senior legal adviser for his reelection campaign that linked to an article whose headline said "only 9,210 Americans died from COVID-19 alone."

And, in a Sept. 1 interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, Trump said it himself:

"I saw a statistic come out the other day, talking about only 6% of the people actually died from COVID, which is a very interesting — that they died from other reasons."

"Well, they had comorbidities, which you’ve gotten criticized for," Ingraham responded.

She’s right — the president misconstrued data on coronavirus deaths. As of Sept. 3, CDC data show 185,092 Americans had died due to COVID-19, and some estimates put the death toll higher.

Trump’s claim traces back to a report from the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of the CDC. Each Wednesday, the agency releases new provisional death counts for the coronavirus. The data is based on death certificates.

In that report, the NCHS notes in a section titled "Comorbidities" that, "for 6% of the deaths, COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned."

"For deaths with conditions or causes in addition to COVID-19, on average, there were 2.6 additional conditions or causes per death," the report says.

Those lines have inspired a rash of claims on social media, including those retweeted by the president, that say the CDC "adjusted" its coronavirus death counts and the disease is not as deadly as previously thought.

Those assertions are false — we rated a related Facebook post Pants on Fire. Several other fact-checkers also have debunked them.

Let’s recap why they’re wrong.

Comorbidities are conditions that patients experience in tandem with a primary condition. Think of conditions like cancer or diabetes, which the CDC has said put people more at risk of death if they contract the coronavirus.

The NCHS report shows that the vast majority of coronavirus-related deaths occur in patients with comorbidities. But that doesn’t mean COVID-19 was a non-factor.

"The point that the CDC was trying to make was that a certain percentage of them had nothing else but just COVID-19," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in a Sept. 1 interview with "Good Morning America." "That does not mean that someone who has hypertension or diabetes who dies of COVID didn’t die of COVID-19 — they did."

"The numbers that you’ve been hearing, the 180,000-plus deaths, are real deaths from COVID-19. Let there not be any confusion about that."

So why do 94% of death certificates that mention COVID-19 also list other conditions?

When a coronavirus patient is admitted to the hospital, the virus is listed on their medical record. Since the coronavirus attacks the lungs, perhaps they develop respiratory failure, which would also be listed on their record. Unfortunately, they die after going into cardiac arrest, so doctors take note of that, too.

All three of those conditions would be listed on the patient’s death certificate, but COVID-19 started the process.

"The people dying were not going to die but for the acquisition of COVID," said Dr. Myron Cohen, director of the Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Jeff Lancashire, acting associate director for communications at the NCHS, told us in an email that 92% of the death certificates that mention the coronavirus state that COVID-19 was the "underlying cause of death."

"The underlying cause of death is the condition that began the chain of events that ultimately led to the person’s death," Lancashire said.

We reached out to the White House and the Trump campaign for a comment, but we haven’t heard back.

Trump’s claim is inaccurate and ridiculous. We rate it Pants on Fire!

PolitiFact Texasis a partnership of the Austin American-Statesman, Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News to help you find the truth in Texas politics.

Sources

Factba.se, accessed Sept. 3, 2020

PolitiFact, "No, the CDC did not ‘quietly adjust’ US coronavirus deaths," Aug. 31, 2020

YouTube video from Factbase Videos, Sept. 1, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC COVID Data Tracker, accessed Sept. 3, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): About CDC COVID-19 Data, July 13, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): People with Certain Medical Conditions, Aug. 14, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Social Distancing, July 15, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Instructions for Completing the Cause-of-Death Section of the Death Certificate, accessed Aug. 31, 2020

Email from Dr. Myron Cohen, director of the Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Aug. 31, 2020

Email from Jeff Lancashire, acting associate director for communications at the National Center for Health Statistics, Aug. 31, 2020

Facebook post from Dr. Mark Halstead, Aug. 30, 2020

The Gateway Pundit, "SHOCK REPORT: This Week CDC Quietly Updated COVID-19 Numbers – Only 9,210 Americans Died From COVID-19 Alone – Rest Had Different Other Serious Illnesses," Aug. 29, 2020

National Center for Health Statistics, Provisional Death Counts for Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), Sept. 2, 2020

The New York Times, "The True Coronavirus Toll in the U.S. Has Already Surpassed 200,000," Aug. 13, 2020

Tweeted video from "Good Morning America," Sept. 1, 2020

Factcheck.org, "CDC Did Not ‘Admit Only 6%’ of Recorded Deaths from COVID-19," Sept. 1, 2020

Snopes, "Did CDC ‘Quietly Update’ COVID-19 Deaths To Say Only 6% Are Legitimate?" Sept. 3, 2020

Health Feedback, "False claim shared by President Trump that only 6% of CDC-reported deaths are from COVID-19 is based on flawed reasoning," Aug. 31, 2020

Check Your Fact, "FACT CHECK: DID THE CDC REVISE ITS COVID-19 DEATH COUNT TO SHOW THAT ONLY 9,210 PEOPLE ‘ACTUALLY DIED’ FROM COVID-19?" Aug. 31, 2020