Fact Check: CDC Data Do NOT 'Reveal' Hospitals Have Counted Heart Attacks as COVID-19 Deaths

Fact Check

  • by: Dean Miller
Fact Check: CDC Data Do NOT 'Reveal' Hospitals Have Counted Heart Attacks as COVID-19 Deaths Data Mis-used

Does Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data "reveal" that COVID-19 death totals have been exaggerated by hospitals counting heart attacks as COVID deaths? No, that's not true: Hospitals don't fill out death certificates, doctors and/or medical examiners do. The claim relies on misinterpretation of death certificates. Death certificates record the sequence of events by which humans succumb to a disease: underlying cause of death is what leads to the crisis that kills. So a lethal heart attack brought on by COVID-19 is correctly counted as a COVID-19 death in the CDC tally.

The claim about hospitals appeared in a video news report published by One America News Network on October 27, 2020, titled "CDC Reveals Hospitals Counted Heart Attacks as COVID-19 Deaths" (archived here) which opened: "The latest numbers from the CDC reveal hospitals have been counting patients who died from serious preexisting conditions as COVID-19 deaths." It continued:

One America's Pearson Sharp has more, as the CDC counts over 51-thousand patients who actually died from heart attacks, as opposed to the coronavirus.

At the time of writing, here's how the video appeared on YouTube:

The One America News anchor introduces the segment by saying: "The latest numbers from the CDC reveal hospitals have been counting patients who died from serious pre-existing conditions as COVID-19 deaths."

OAN reporter Pearson Sharp says the following things in his report:

Doctors tell One America News that all of these patients were critically ill and likely died from their pre-existing conditions without any help from the coronavirus.

Doctors are being paid to list deaths as coronavirus without any indication the patient's death was actually COVID related.

According to the National Institutes of Health and even Dr. Anthony Fauci himself in a 2008 paper explained that the majority of deaths during the 1918 and 1919 pandemic were not caused by the influenza alone. Instead, Dr. Fauci says, that the vast majority of deaths were caused by bacterial pneumonia exactly what the CDC shows we're witnessing again today.

Responding to the same claim about miscounting deaths made in a Twitter post, the chief of the Mortality Statistics Brach at the National Center for Health Statistics wrote in an October 26, 2020, email to Lead Stories that this "grossly misinterprets the data on comorbidities." Robert Anderson, Ph.D., said many of the conditions listed, such as pneumonia, respiratory distress and cardiac arrest, are caused by COVID-19.

So, the death certificate might report the cause of death as respiratory distress syndrome due to pneumonia due to COVID-19, i.e., a logical causal sequence from the immediate cause (respiratory distress) working back to the underlying cause (COVID-19). Other pre-existing conditions that may be present (e.g., hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, COPD) are most often reported as contributing factors, not as the underlying cause. In 92% of deaths where COVID-19 is reported on death certificates, COVID-19 is reported as the underlying cause of death.

When President Trump made the claims about doctors profiting by falsifying death certificates, three major medical associations responded: The American College of Emergency Physicians on October 25, 2020, said it was appalled, calling the claim "reckless and false." The claim is "a reprehensible attack on physicians' ethics and professionalism," said the American College of Physicians in an October 25, 2020, statement from the group, which represents internal medicine specialists. The Council of Medical Specialty Societies, a coalition of 45 organizations representing 800,000 doctors, condemned the claim as "baseless" and said many of its members have taken a cut in pay while continuing to care for COVID-19 patients.

As for the 2008 paper in a research journal, OAN's reporter, Pearson Sharp, whose bio says he studied creative writing in college and is working on a science fiction novel, completely misreads Fauci's paper about causes of death during the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919. Fauci encapsulates the idea simply with this quote from noted French pathologist Louis Cruveilhier, who quipped in 1919: "If grippe (influenza) condemns, the secondary infections execute." In other words, you can't separate the underlying cause of death from the fatal crisis it causes.

Published October 1, 2008, in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, "Predominant Role of Bacterial Pneumonia as a Cause of Death in Pandemic Influenza: Implications for Pandemic Influenza Preparedness" was co-authored by David M. Morens, Jeffery K. Taubenberger and Anthony S. Fauci, who is the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Fauci and his co-authors examined autopsy samples stored since the early 1900s and reviewed more than 2,000 medical reports from that time to determine that most deaths were the result of a one-two punch of viral and bacterial infection:

We believe that the weight of 90 years of evidence (table 3), including the exceptional but largely forgotten work of an earlier generation of pathologists, indicates that the vast majority of pulmonary deaths from pandemic influenza viruses have resulted from poorly understood interactions between the infecting virus and secondary infections due to bacteria that colonize the upper respiratory tract.

Fauci and his co-authors designed their study to precisely determine what killed Spanish Flu victims. The authors repeatedly emphasized the evidence of bacterial infection alongside viral infection in the lung tissue samples, and medical reports collected at the time:

The majority of deaths in the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic likely resulted directly from secondary bacterial pneumonia caused by common upper respiratory-tract bacteria...If severe pandemic influenza is largely a problem of viral-bacterial copathogenesis, pandemic planning needs to go beyond addressing the viral cause alone (e.g., influenza vaccines and antiviral drugs).

The CDC's Anderson said people unsure of the toll of COVID-19 need only look at the huge increase this year in total deaths in the U.S. versus what would be statistically consistent with recent history can only be explained by the pandemic. "If anything," he wrote, "we are undercounting COVID-19 deaths."

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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.

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  Dean Miller

Lead Stories Managing Editor 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 Harvard Nieman Fellowship, he served as Director of Stony Brook University's Center for News Literacy for six years, then as Senior Vice President/Content at Connecticut Public Broadcasting. Most recently, he wrote the twice-weekly "Save the Free Press" column for The Seattle Times. 

Read more about or contact Dean Miller

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