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CDC statistic on COVID-19 deaths does not mean only 6 percent died of the virus, infectious disease specialist explains

The misinterpretation of a recent report from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention has led some to believe that COVID-19 deaths are less common than previously reported.

Dr. Irfan Hafiz, an infectious disease specialist with Northwestern Medicine, spoke with Shaw Media on Wednesday and dispelled claims that the CDC “quietly” updated its data to reflect that only 6% of 153,504 deaths were actually caused by COVID-19.

Such assertions have become widespread on social media, where even President Donald Trump re-tweeted a misleading post that Twitter has since removed. According to Hafiz, that 6% of deaths attributed only to COVID-19 is part of a much larger picture. In order to properly interpret the CDC’s report, it’s important to understand how COVID-19 can worsen or cause additional symptoms and conditions.

“We do see things like heart disease, diabetes and dementia, seeing an abnormal increase in death, above historic norms based on the reporting from the death certificate,” Hafiz said. “We do know that all of those are chronic diseases. So if those people are suddenly dying within a short span of time, it’s not their disease that’s killing them. It’s making them prone to death because of another factor, in this case, probably COVID.”

Frequently cited from the CDC report is a finding that in just 6% of deaths, COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned. But with COVID-19, people typically don’t die from a single ailment, meaning that additional complications such as respiratory or renal failure are likely to appear on the death certificate, Hafiz said.

In McHenry County, the coroner’s office will typically list COVID-19 as the primary cause of death when it’s appropriate. Making that determination often includes assessing the person’s condition and speaking with their physician to gauge how the person was feeling before they died, McHenry County Deputy Coroner Annalleli Alanis said. Confirmed cases of COVID-19 are not recorded as the cause of death when the disease wasn’t a contributing factor, such as a fatal car crash, Alanis said.

Cases reporting COVID-19 deaths “alone” are those where there were no pre-existing conditions, said McHenry County Department Health Nursing Director Susan Karras.

“Someone who has a pre-existing condition is more susceptible to complications when infected with COVID-19, so COVID-19 contributes to the individual’s death,” Karras said. “In other words, because they contracted COVID-19 they died due to the complications caused by COVID-19.”

Death certificates also tend to include an “immediate” cause of death followed by “underlying causes,” Karras said.

“So the immediate cause could be respiratory failure, followed by underlying causes in order of COVID-19, followed by Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), followed by Insulin Dependent Diabetes Mellitus (IDDM).”

COVID-19 deaths are counted if they are listed on the death certificate as the cause of death or as contributing to the death, Karras said.

The weekly number of deaths in the U.S. might actually indicate that COVID-19 deaths were under-reported when the pandemic first emerged, Hafiz said. Since access to COVID-19 testing was limited at the beginning on the year, some people likely died of the disease or related complications before a diagnosis could be confirmed, Hafiz said.

“You don’t just come in [the hospital] with respiratory failure,” Hafiz said. “There’s got to be a cause of that…COVID doesn’t cause death directly, either. It is a domino effect by causing other complications. These are all interrelated. They are not separate items when you talk about pneumonia, respiratory failure, cardiac arrest, and COVID. There are a continuum of the problem.”

In order to curb the spread of COVID-19, people should continue to wear masks, socially distance themselves from others, and seek guidance from sources like the CDC, rather than individual studies, Hafiz said.

“People take one line or one word out of context, and give it a disproportionate weight, and not look at the other pieces of data there,” he said.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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