Fact Check: Coronavirus NOT Sparing Essential Workers (But Most Victims Are Elderly)

Fact Check

  • by: Tom Watkins
Fact Check: Coronavirus NOT Sparing Essential Workers (But Most Victims Are Elderly) Older Victims

Does a paucity of "essential workers" among COVID-19 victims mean the outbreak is overblown? No, that's not true. By definition, such workers tend to be among society's healthiest people. And the posting offers no evidence to support its assertion that essential workers are not dying in significant numbers. In fact, many "essential workers," including doctors, police and fire officials, and transit and telecoms workers have become ill and died.

The claim appeared in a post (archived here) published April 15, 2020, on Facebook. It read:

If the virus is so deadly why aren't we seeing "essential workers" dying at an alarming rate?

This is what the post looked like on Facebook at the time of writing:

Facebook screenshot

Like so much related to any outbreak of a disease still in its early stages, much about the impact of COVID-19 is uncertain, including how it affects various subgroups.

Both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization said they are not keeping track of whether those infected or killed by COVID-19 are essential workers.

It's tough to distinguish one person's definition of "alarming" from another's. But we're comfortable saying that the posted statement is misleading at best.

That's because plenty of anecdotal evidence exists to show that members of the "essential workers" group are not spared.

For example, at least 79 of the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority's approximately 74,000 transit workers have died from COVID-19, nearly 3,000 have tested positive and more than 4,000 were out on quarantine as of April 20.

Those infected included MTA Chairman Pat Foye.

And eight of the approximately 13,000 Consolidated Edison Co. of New York workers had lost their lives as of April 23, according to a spokesman for the power company.

Until testing becomes more widespread, it will not be possible to compare with certainty the case fatality rates of different groups. But these anecdotes likely do not reflect the overall deadliness of the virus, because workers of any kind -- not just essential ones -- tend to be under the age of 65, and those most at risk of dying from the disease tend to be older than that.

As of April 14, 72.3 percent of the 6,839 COVID-19 deaths in New York City had occurred among people over the age of 65, according to the New York City Department of Health.

Worldwide, the number of confirmed cases was 2,544,792 as of April 23, and the number of deaths was 175,694, according to WHO, which calculated those figures by compiling data submitted by national authorities.

Though people of all ages can be infected by the new coronavirus, "older people, and people with pre-existing medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease) appear to be more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the virus," according to WHO, which advises people of all ages to take steps to protect themselves from the virus.

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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.


  Tom Watkins

Tom Watkins is a reporter/editor who has worked for news organizations for more than 30 years. After earning his undergraduate degree in biology from Brown University and his master's from Columbia Journalism School, he rose from reporter to managing editor at Medical Tribune, a newspaper that circulated to more than 1 million doctors worldwide. 
He then spent 24 years at CNN's Atlanta headquarters in a variety of roles, from medical producer to producer/correspondent to news editor on the website. Since leaving CNN in 2014, he has worked for the World Health Organization's Health Emergencies Programme in Geneva and edited books for Hachette Book Group. He is based in New York City.

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