Fact Check: The CDC Did NOT Admit That Only 6% Of Deaths In COVID Toll Were From COVID-19

Fact Check

  • by: Dean Miller

STORY UPDATED: check for updates below.

Fact Check: The CDC Did NOT Admit That Only 6% Of Deaths In COVID Toll Were From COVID-19 'Dr.' Misleads

Did the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quietly admit this week that only 6% of all people in the COVID-19 death tally actually died from COVID-19? No, that's not true: The chiropractor who made the claim has misstated the meaning of "comorbidity" and appears not to know the CDC's death toll is updated daily with new reports from each state and has included comorbidity data since the agency started posting death tallies for COVID-19. The 6% figure has been on the CDC website since at least July 12, 2020 so it also wasn't "quietly updated" as some are claiming.

The claim, a version of which was re-tweeted by President Trump, appears in an Aug. 29, 2020, Facebook post on the "DrElizabeth Hesse DC" page (archived here) it opens:

Copied after I verified it- look for the link below that takes you to the CDC site.

This week the CDC quietly updated the Covid number to admit that only 6% of all the 153,504 deaths recorded actually died from Covid.

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

Facebook screenshot

(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Mon Aug 31 17:06:25 2020 UTC)

Elizabeth Hesse, a chiropractor from Woodinville, Washington, goes on to say:

That's 9,210 deaths.

The other 94% had 2 to 3 other serious illnesses and the overwhelming majority were of very advanced age; 90% in nursing homes.

That's a pretty big BOOM.

This is not to say it's not real. I'm not debating that. I'm just showing updated numbers. Not here to fight. Sick of fighting.

Hesse and other posters of this claim make two mistakes commonly made by untrained people who are unfamiliar with the CDC's COVID-19 disease fatality data:

1. "Comorbidity" does not mean cause of death.

2. The CDC's COVID-19 death toll is called "provisional" because it is updated as new data is sent from the states.

1. "Comorbidity" is not the same as cause of death

"Comorbidity" data has been collected since early in the pandemic. It's a scientific term that means the simultaneous presence of two chronic diseases or conditions in a patient, not two or more causes of death. The medical professional who signs a death certificate determines the immediate cause of death, but often notes other conditions the patient had at the time of death. Those are comorbidities.

Board-certified forensic pathologists are trained to determine the immediate cause of death, but often note co-existing and contributing factors, says Dr. Patricia A. Aronica, Florida District 19 medical examiner.

So, when a person who dies in a car crash also has COVID-19, the death certificate correctly declares the crash injuries as the cause of death. Conversely, when a person dies of the lung and organ failure that are the body's response to COVID-19 infection, the death certificate correctly attributes the death to COVID-19, even if the person was previously living with diabetes, heart disease or other conditions. "They would die with it, not because of it," said Aronica of the comorbidities.

Comorbidities are common. As many as 82 million Americans with employer-based insurance have a pre-existing condition, ranging from life-threatening illnesses like cancer to chronic conditions like diabetes, asthma, or heart disease, according to analysis by the Department of Health and Human Services. Some 50 million to 129 million (19% to 50% of) non-elderly Americans have some type of pre-existing health condition.

2. The CDC's COVID-19 death toll is updated as new data is sent from the states.

Throughout the pandemic, Dr. Robert Anderson, chief of the Mortality Statistics Branch of the CDC, has had to explain that the CDC keeps two parallel sets of data: the "provisional death count" and the "death count."

The provisional report is compiled from a variety of sources and provides a snapshot of where the infection is spreading so that infection fighters can react quickly to new outbreaks.

The "death count" relies on signed death certificates and lags as much as two weeks behind the provisional report. It is designed for record-keeping that is used later for long-term study of outbreaks and it includes more information about each death.

The post by the chiropractor and others have seized on comorbidity data incorrectly to claim the COVID-19 death toll has been exaggerated and have suggested the agency "quietly" slid new numbers onto its web page. In an email to Lead Stories on Aug. 31, 2020, Anderson confirmed that the data on comorbidity is not new and has been included with the death tally since the early days of the pandemic, when the CDC began sharing the data on its website.


  • 2020-08-31T22:24:10Z 2020-08-31T22:24:10Z
    Added archive link showing the 6% figure was present on the CDC site since at least July 12, 2020

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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.

  Dean Miller

Lead Stories staff writer Dean Miller has edited daily and weekly newspapers, worked as a reporter for more than a decade and is co-author of two non-fiction books. After a one-year Harvard Nieman Fellowship, he served as Director of Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy for six years. As Senior Vice President/Content at Connecticut Public Broadcasting, a dual licensee, he oversaw radio, TV and print journalists, and documentary producers. He moved west to teach journalism at Western Washington University, edit The Port Townsend Leader and write the twice-weekly Save The Free Press column for the Seattle Times. Miller won the 2007 national Mirror Award for news industry coverage and he led the team that won the 2005 Scripps Howard first amendment prize. 

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