Recently, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made a regular data update on COVID-19 deaths. Unfortunately, the data, and how it was presented, was immediately misinterpreted and widely disseminated by conspiracy theorists to suggest that the actual deaths caused by COVID-19 were dramatically lower than previously reported.
The weekly coronavirus update supplied statistics as of August 26, 2020. The report stated, “For 6% of deaths, COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned. For deaths with conditions or causes in addition to COVID-19, on average, there were 2.6 additional conditions or causes per death.”
Conspiracy theorists and people generally preferring to believe that the COVID-19 pandemic is being grossly exaggerated, interpreted that to mean that only 6% of the 153,504 reported deaths in the U.S. were really from COVID-19. To make matters worse, President Trump retweeted a tweet from a QAnon (conspiracy group) supporter “Mel Q” stating: “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. That’s 9,210 deaths. The other 95% had 2-3 other serious illnesses & the overwhelming majority were of very advanced age.”
The tweet has since been deleted.
QAnon, The Washington Post points out, “posits that the president is battling a cabal of Satan-worshiping child sex traffickers.”
Public health experts, physicians and scientists were quick to respond and clarify the CDC data. Zubin Damania, a Stanford-trained physician who offers humorous but informational videos under the name ZDoggMD, had a specific video on the data, saying, “Any medical professional who fills out death certificates understands how it’s done. You list the main cause of death and then anything that contributes. So the certificate can have multiple things on it. You can have things that were preexisting like diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and then you can have the main disease, like COVID-19, and then things that led to the main visit, like respiratory failure, respiratory arrest, cardiac arrest, heart failure, adult respiratory distress syndrome, and you list all those things on the document.”
What happened, he goes on to say, is the CDC said, 6% of all the fatalities that listed COVID-19 somewhere only listed COVID—meaning they didn’t list anything else. It was interpreted by people with an agenda as being that they were dying “with” COVID and not “of” COVID, that it supported the idea it was a hoax and the CDC admitted it in their data.
“Six percent of the death certificates said COVID and that’s it. That could mean the people filling out the death certificates weren’t complete, and they didn’t put the other stuff, or, COVID-19 was the only thing they had, the patients had no comorbidities or diseases and they truly died purely of COVID. That’s truly a tragedy because we don’t see that unless the people are really old, which is the majority of deaths, by the way,” Damania said.
Damania points out that just because you have diabetes or high blood pressure doesn’t mean they killed you and you just happened to have COVID. It’s usually the opposite, because COVID tends to affect those people more and they die “of the COVID because of their comorbidities, not with COVID and dying of the comorbidities. That’s already one distortion of this.”
Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the leading expert in the world on pandemics, also debunked the conspiracy theories. He told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that the CDC data indicated that of the people who died from the virus, “a certain percentage of them had nothing else but just COVID.” But, he added, people with underlying diseases also die from COVID-19. “That does not mean that someone who has hypertension or diabetes who dies of COVID didn’t die of COVID-19. They did. So the numbers you’ve been hearing—there are 180,000-plus deaths—are real deaths from COVID-19. Let (there) not be any confusion about that. It’s not 9,000 deaths from COVID-19, it’s 180-plus-thousand deaths.”
Wider Implications and Pandemic Propaganda
This particular incident underlines several issues that have become problematic during the COVID-19 pandemic. First, it underlines what might be dubbed “pandemic propaganda.” In April, as the pandemic was ramping up in the U.S., The New York Times wrote about this idea, beginning with a viral media post incorrectly attributed to a Stanford University physician claiming that if you could hold your breath without coughing for more than 10 seconds, you probably didn’t have COVID-19. The World Health Organization has gone so far as to label them “infodemic campaigns.”
This is exacerbated by the echo-chamber quality of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. It is also heightened by politicians and media sources latching onto any information, no matter how inaccurate or unscientific, that supports their political agenda. It also appears to be amplified by Russian operatives that push conspiracy theories about global health outbreaks, such as Ebola and types of the flu being manufactured by U.S. scientists.
And it’s not as if the pandemic is the first time this has appeared. It’s been going on for years, potentially several decades, in terms of climate change, cherry-picking one or two contrary research studies saying it doesn’t exist while ignoring or discrediting literally tens of thousands of studies documenting its existence.
Thirdly, it very much underlines the problems with scientific literacy in the U.S. and the world. Steve Cohen, senior vice dean of Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies and former policy analyst and consultant with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, wrote in an August 3, 2020 blog, “At the start of my professional career in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, I was struck by the relative lack of scientific expertise among decision-makers…. But decision-makers do not have the luxury that consultants, policy analysts and academic enjoy: They often don’t have time to search for expertise and slowly learn from experts. They need experts and expertise, but they often need them and their knowledge in a hurry. Sometimes they have to fly the jet plane and repair it at the same time. A recession hits, and lawyers must learn finance. A pandemic hits, and all of us must learn about the science of virus transmission. It is important that we have enough scientific background to know what we don’t know. For those who are experts in one area, it is critical to recognize that you need to consult with someone who is an expert in another area.”
And fourth, it demonstrates just how difficult it can be to collect and understand meaningful data during a pandemic. In April, Martin Wokewitz with the Institute of Medical Biometry and Statistics at the University of Freiburg, Germany, and Livia Puljak, with the Center for Evidence-Based Medicine and Health Care at Catholic University of Croatia, published an article in BMC Medical Research Methodology titled, “Methodological challenges of analyzing COVID-19 data during the pandemic.”
In the article, they outline the challenges, including getting proper clinical data of active and closed COVID-19 cases; understanding the complexity of clinical endpoints; understanding common statistical pitfalls in clinical epidemiology; developing appropriate analysis strategies; communicating statistical effects and distinguishing them from artifacts; learning from similar studies about SARS, MERS and influenza A; updating reporting guidelines for observational studies during a pandemic; statistical support for randomized trial; and others.
As Damania said at the end of his video, “I’m begging you, let’s do the science right, understand the science right. There’s a lot of science that’s great, we can argue back and forth, and good people will argue on all sides of the political spectrum. Good people on all sides of the political spectrum can argue about how we take care of this problem, how we address it—if it’s an iceberg and the tip of it is the deaths, you can argue that the rest of the iceberg is important, that’s fine, make that argument. Don’t misrepresent data and make yourself and your opinions look stupid, because that’s what it does. It really riles me up. This is simple, simple science and it’s not that complicated.”