Fact Check: COVID-19 NOT Being Blamed For Deaths Primarily Due To Unrelated Causes

Fact Check

  • by: Ryan Cooper

STORY UPDATED: check for updates below.

Fact Check: COVID-19 NOT Being Blamed For Deaths Primarily Due To Unrelated Causes False

Is it true that asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19 who die of other medical problems will be added to the coronavirus death toll? No, that's not true: Many asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19 are not getting tested in the first place, so that assertion doesn't hold up.

Lead Stories reached out to the president of the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME), who analyzed these claims. She told us there is a lot of false information in the posts.

The claims originated in a post (archived here) published on Facebook by Candace Owens on March 29, 2020. It opened:

Important information for everyone to know about #coronavirus. Obesity is the number 1 killer in America. Right now, they are giving everyone who dies a Covid-19 lab test. If people die from heart disease, but were asymptomatic carriers of Covid-19, their deaths are counted toward the total. Same with other viruses an illnesses. I am an asthmatic. If I die from an asthma attack today, and it is determined that I have Covid-19 in my system at the time of death, my death counts as "complications from coronavirus", even if I never had any symptoms. They are trying desperately to get the numbers they need to justify this pandemic response.

Below is an article that explains how they are manipulating deaths. I spent all day today trying to look up daily death rates for any other diseases. You can't get it anywhere. They are reporting ONLY on coronavirus deaths. I suspect if we begin to demand the daily death toll numbers for heart disease, we will observe a deep decline. I am most interested in NYC overall deaths for this past month (Not just from Covid-19). If anyone knows where we can get this information, please let me know. They seem to be locking it down. If they can tell us how many people are dying from coronavirus daily-- why can't they tell us how many people are dying otherwise?

Users on social media only saw this:

The post also included a screenshot of Owens' tweet, which read:

The number one killer in America is Heart disease. 1,002 people a day.

Did you know that if you die from heart disease right now, and they determine you to be an asymptomatic carrier of Covid-19 in your post-Mortem, they legally add your death to the #Coronavirus death toll?

The post is being shared to suggest that medical officials are - in Owens' words - "trying desperately to get the numbers to justify this pandemic response." This comment is an attempt to downplay the severity of a global infectious disease that has killed more than 42,000 people as of March 31, 2020. By April 1, the United States - which has the highest number of cases in the world - recorded more than 4,000 deaths, a figure that doubled in a period of just days.

There are several inaccuracies in Owens' post. We consulted with Dr. Sally Aiken, M.D., the president of NAME, and a practicing medical examiner in Washington state. She said:

For decedents (dead persons) who are known to be positive for COVID-19, and who have symptoms, the vast majority have died during a hospitalization. If they were otherwise healthy, the deaths are being attributed to COVID-19 on the death certificate. The exact certification may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Aiken said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had issued guidance for death certification on its website. According to its guidance, dated March 4, 2020:

It is important to emphasize that Coronavirus Disease 2019 or COVID-19 should be reported on the death certificate for all decedents where the disease caused or is assumed to have caused or contributed to death.

Owens' post used the example of people with heart disease. However, individuals with underlying medical conditions are in the higher-risk groups for the coronavirus, as Aiken detailed:

As most people are aware, people pre-existing disease like heart failure, and COPD, seem to be at higher risk for death due to COVID-19. If those individuals are positive for COVID-19 and have symptoms, COVID-19 is typically being listed on the death certificate as the cause of death, with their other diseases listed as contributory. This helps all of us, as we learn what the natural disease risk factors for COVID-19 death are. It is not a conspiracy, or any different than what occurs during non-COVID-19 times. (If someone dies of Influenza A or B, contributory causes are often listed on the death certificate as well.)

The post also refers to "asymptomatic carriers" of COVID-19 being identified on death certificates as having died of the coronavirus. But Aiken pointed out that this suggestion is flawed due to the lack of widespread testing:

As most people are aware, very few asymptomatic people in the U.S. have been tested for COVID-19. In the vast number of cases, living individuals are being tested because they have symptoms. Medical examiners and coroners are doing the same thing. We are performing autopsies on homicides, suicides, traffic accidents, etc. These decedents are not being tested for COVID-19 as a matter of course. Medical Examiners and Coroners are testing decedents who had symptoms, but were undiagnosed during life. MEs and Coroners are not identifying any 'asymptomatic carriers,' because we aren't testing for them, as it is not pertinent for death certification.

Owens also suggested in her Facebook post that if she were to die from an asthma attack, her death would be added to the coronavirus tally. Aiken called out that claim:

The statement, 'If I die from an asthma attack today, and have COVID-19 in my system,' shows a lack of understanding about triggers for asthma. A viral infection with respiratory symptoms is often a trigger for a severe asthma attack. I would suspect that in these circumstances, COVID-19 would justifiably be listed on the death certificate along with asthma.

Owens' Facebook post contradicts the screenshot of her own tweet. On Facebook, she said the number one killer in the United States is obesity. But her screenshot from Twitter said the number one killer is heart disease. Certainly, obesity is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, but her post is contradictory. The CDC does not list obesity as a cause of death, according to NBC News.

Many other posts are being shared that include Owens' tweet along with a circled response from a user name @mnkybrd who claims to work in a medical examiners office. The tweet reply said:

I work in medical examiners office. Suicides and murders are being classified as covid deaths if they carry the anti body. It's a numbers game, and a sham.

Here is an example:

That unsourced statement is not true. Aiken said, "It is categorically false that 'suicides and murders' are being categorized as COVID-19 deaths."

The Washington Post published an investigative story on April 5, 2020, titled Coronavirus death toll: Americans are almost certainly dying of covid-19 but being left out of the official count, which found that the number of COVID-19 related deaths is likely undercounted:

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counts only deaths in which the presence of the coronavirus is confirmed in a laboratory test. "We know that it is an underestimation," agency spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said.

A widespread lack of access to testing in the early weeks of the U.S. outbreak means people with respiratory illnesses died without being counted, epidemiologists say. Even now, some people who die at home or in overburdened nursing homes are not being tested, according to funeral directors, medical examiners and nursing home representatives.

Postmortem testing by medical examiners varies widely across the country, and some officials say testing the dead is a misuse of scarce resources that could be used on the living. In addition, some people who have the virus test negative, experts say.

There is a lot of misinformation online about the coronavirus. Here are some other fact checks by Lead Stories you may want to check out:

Updates:

  • 2020-04-05T16:21:25Z 2020-04-05T16:21:25Z
    Updated 4/5/2020: Adding quotes from Washington Post investigation finding number of COVID-19 deaths is likely undercounted.

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Lead Stories is working with the CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 fact-checkers who are fighting misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about the alliance here.


  Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a staff writer and fact-checker for Lead Stories, is the former Director of Programming at CNN International, where he helped shape the network's daily newscasts broadcast to more than 280 million households around the world. He was based at the network's Los Angeles Bureau. There, he managed the team responsible for a three-hour nightly program, Newsroom LA.

Formerly, he worked at the headquarters in Atlanta, and he spent four years at the London bureau. An award-winning producer, Cooper oversaw the network's Emmy Award-winning coverage of the uprising in Egypt in 2011. He also served as a supervising producer during much of the network's live reporting on the Israel-Hezbollah conflict in 2006, for which CNN received an Edward R. Murrow Award.

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