The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that 94% of the nation’s coronavirus deaths were people with other health conditions, besides a positive COVID-19 infection, at their time of death.
Such data doesn’t come as a surprise to those in the health community, who know coronavirus cases are more severe for patients with underlying health conditions, and COVID-19 infections can lead to more dire conditions.
But the CDC’s data has been misused in recent days, resulting in misleading headlines and social media posts, including a tweet shared by President Donald Trump before Twitter removed it.
Earlier this week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert in infectious diseases, offered a clarification in response to the confusion.
“The point that the CDC was trying to make was that a certain percentage of them had nothing else but just COVID,” Fauci said during an interview on ABC’s Good Morning America. “That does not mean someone with hypertension or diabetes, who dies of COVID, didn’t die of COVID-19 — they did. So the numbers you’ve been hearing the 180,000+ deaths, they’re real deaths from COVID-19.”
In order to understand the CDC’s report on coronavirus comorbidities, Linda Vail, public health officer for Ingham County, said it’s important to understand how Michigan death certificates are filled out.
When done properly, a death certificate provides an immediate cause of death and a sequence of events/conditions leading to the cause of death, plus other significant conditions that could have contributed to the death.
It would be “rather unusual,” Vail said, for coronavirus to be listed as the immediate cause of death in an individual, which is what the CDC’s data says has occurred in 6% of cases. Instead, coronavirus is likely to appear in the sequence of events/conditions leading to the cause of death.
What happened in the other 94% of deaths? An individual might have had underlying health conditions like lung disease, heart disease, diabetes or cancer, and/or coronavirus weakened their immune system and led to another infection like pneumonia or sepsis.
“What you’re seeing in these other co-morbidities is two things,” Vail said. “One is a list of co-morbidities that makes a person less healthy and, when they get COVID, more likely to get sick and die. Then there’s the things like influenza, pneumonia, respiratory distress or failure; those things are consequences from getting COVID infection and having it go bad. Some of those have underlying conditions which led to them getting infected and getting sicker.”
The CDC’s report looked at the nation’s 161,392 COVID-19 deaths between Feb. 1 and Aug. 22. Of the 94% of cases with other causes or conditions mentioned in addition to coronavirus, there were on average 2.6 additional conditions or causes per death.
The most common conditions listed included influenza and pneumonia (68,004 death cases), respiratory failure (54,803), hypertensive diseases (35,272), diabetes (25,936), cardiac arrest (20,210) and other conditions (77,990).
Dr. Jennifer Swiderek, medical director of the Medical Intensive Care Unit at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, said the CDC report wasn’t a surprise because her hospital has seen similar numbers. The vast majority of patients who have died after being infected with COVID-19 had underlying conditions like heart disease, lung disease, or cancer, or had conditions caused by COVID like pneumonia or ARDS, she said.
“What that 94% number means is that, as is well-known and well-reported by now, patients with underlying health conditions are more vulnerable to having a more severe case or dying,” Swiderek said.
Also included in the CDC’s death report is a breakdown by age. Seventy-nine percent of coronavirus deaths nationwide have been patients 65 years old and older. Only 330 deaths — or 0.2 percent — have been individuals 0-24 years old.
Since the CDC’s data had last been updated, the nation’s death toll due to COVID-19 has surpassed 184,000, including 6,509 Michiganders.
COVID-19 PREVENTION TIPS:
In addition to washing hands regularly and not touching your face, officials recommend practicing social distancing, assuming anyone may be carrying the virus.
Health officials say you should be staying at least 6 feet away from others and working from home, if possible.
Use disinfecting wipes or disinfecting spray cleaners on frequently-touched surfaces in your home (door handles, faucets, countertops) and carry hand sanitizer with you when you go into places like stores.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has also issued executive orders requiring people to wear face coverings over their mouth and nosewhile in public indoor and crowded outdoor spaces. See an explanation of what that means here.
For more data on COVID-19 in Michigan, visit https://www.mlive.com/coronavirus/data/.
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