The credibility of medical professionals and the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic are once again under attack, this time with the words “only 6 percent.” This number has been circulating in the news and social media ever since a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report on COVID-19 deaths was released, showing data that 94% of deaths involving patients with COVID-19 had comorbidities, while 6% of death certificates listed solely COVID-19 as the cause of death alone.
This has been misinterpreted by some as evidence that the deadliness of COVID-19 is vastly overstated and that only 6% of the more than 180,000 deaths can truly be attributed to the virus. This gross misinterpretation has been retweeted and has become widespread, but it is quite inaccurate nonetheless. Make no mistake, we have not overemphasized the dangers of the COVID-19 virus, and social distancing and mask wearing are still a necessity in the face of this deadly pandemic.
This round of attacks on the veracity of the medical community came from a CDC update on coronavirus deaths in mid-August. The CDC report pulls data from death certificates. Confusion may come from the fact that most people have never seen a death certificate; sadly, as a hospital-based physician, I am filling out more than ever this year. A death certificate is more than a simple one line asking for cause of death. Rather, it is a document that attempts to gather all the factors surrounding someone’s death. It asks for the immediate reason for death (i.e. cardiac arrest, meaning the heart stopped, or respiratory failure, meaning the person stopped breathing), what caused that immediate reason (i.e. COVID-19 infection), and any factors and pre-existing health conditions that made that person more susceptible to the disease (i.e. significant diabetes, cancer, or heart and lung conditions). So it makes sense that the majority of death certificates list other “comorbidities” such as respiratory failure or pneumonia, because that is what COVID-19 causes. It doesn’t actually mean they died from some other disease.
I hope that this explanation demystifies the CDC data and clears up that, yes, the climbing death toll is due to the coronavirus. However, I speculate that some will ignore this truth and continue using the “6 percent” argument to attack the integrity of scientific and medical professionals, as well as the policymakers that listen to them.
The country has become so politicized that even science and hard data can be undermined if it does not fit an agenda. We must continue standing with the overwhelming scientific community that agrees the COVID-19 pandemic is still a lethal problem.
Unfortunately, the louder the false information and attacks, the less people take the pandemic seriously and trust medical recommendations. This is not the time to let up on social distancing, mask wearing and hand washing. We must continue to call out falsehoods and twisting of the facts that would have us backslide and add to the ever-growing number of infectious deaths in this country. The “only 6 percent” cannot stand, and it will take 100 percent of Americans to come together, fight misinformation and beat this virus.
Dr. Thomas Ken Lew is an assistant clinical professor of Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine and an attending physician of Hospital Medicine at Stanford Health Care — ValleyCare.