Viral Post Misleads on COVID-19 Death Reporting, Vaccine Monitoring

By Angelo Fichera

Posted on May 6, 2021

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SciCheck Digest

A tweet that migrated across social media platforms falsely suggests that any deaths in the 20 days following positive COVID-19 tests are to be attributed to the disease, “no matter what other factors were involved.” There is no such policy. And there’s also no evidence for the post’s suggestion that the vaccines are causing deaths that are being ignored.




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COVID-19 is dangerous: The disease is estimated to have caused more than 579,000 deaths in the U.S. alone, and it can cause lingering health problems for some who get it. The COVID-19 vaccines now authorized for emergency use in the U.S., meanwhile, were found in clinical trials to be safe and effective at preventing symptomatic illness. Nearly 250 million doses have been administered thus far.

But a post circulating online distorts the facts to imply that COVID-19 deaths are inflated by a supposed mandate concerning positive COVID-19 tests. It also baselessly suggests that vaccines are causing deaths that are being ignored.

“Funny isn’t it, if you die within 20 days of testing positive for the Rona (no matter what other factors were involved) You’ll be counted as a COVID death,” the May 2 tweet reads. “However, if you drop dead within 24 hours of taking the vaccine it has nothing to do with it.”

One Instagram post of a screenshot of the tweet garnered more than 32,000 likes. Another earned more than 8,000 likes.

But there is no rule that those who “die within 20 days of testing positive” for COVID-19 are to be automatically classified as having died from the disease, “no matter what other factors were involved.”

We’ve previously addressed similar false claims surrounding COVID-19 death certificates and have explained that there is no federal law governing the death certificate process. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does provide guidance on certifying deaths, including some specific to COVID-19.

The CDC specifically advises that “COVID-19 should not be reported on the death certificate if it did not cause or contribute to the death.”

And there is no evidence that any state or local agencies have such a 20-day rule, either.

It’s possible that COVID-19 could be listed as a contributing factor to — but not the underlying cause of — a death in some cases. But at least 90% of death certificates citing COVID-19 to date list the disease as the underlying cause, or the illness that triggered the chain of events leading to the person’s death, according to CDC data available as of May 5.

It’s worth noting, in the context of the baseless implication that COVID-19 deaths are being systematically misreported, that excess death estimates further reinforce the toll of the pandemic. From March 2020 through the start of 2021, the U.S. experienced about 20% more deaths than would have been expected in the same time period, analyses show. The estimates are higher than the official COVID-19 death toll for that period; excess mortality can also capture indirect effects of the pandemic, such as people who may have died from other causes because they avoided seeking medical attention.

The tweet’s suggestion that COVID-19 vaccines are causing deaths that are not being investigated also doesn’t carry weight.

The U.S. government has several monitoring systems in place to track reports of adverse events — including the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. Patients and caregivers are asked to report “any clinically important medical event or health problem that occurs after vaccination” to VAERS, even if they’re not sure if it was a result of the vaccine.

The CDC and Food and Drug Administration review each case report of deaths that follow vaccination to determine whether they were caused by the vaccine. There has not been an established link for the overwhelming majority of the reports.

The FDA’s fact sheet for health care providers administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine now says that “a causal relationship” between the vaccine and rare cases involving both blood clots and low blood platelets “is plausible” based on the evidence available. The monitoring systems were used to identify those cases. As of May 4, there were 23 confirmed reports of people developing the condition after receiving the J&J vaccine, and at least three individuals have died. More than 8.4 million doses of the J&J vaccine have been administered.

Federal officials on April 13 recommended a brief pause on the J&J vaccine while the issue was investigated and, 10 days later, lifted the pause — saying that the “known and potential benefits outweigh its known and potential risks.” Both the FDA and CDC now include warnings about the rare risk. The CDC says that “[w]omen younger than 50 years old especially should be aware of the rare but increased risk of this adverse event” with the J&J vaccine, and that other COVID-19 vaccines are “available for which this risk has not been seen.”

So health officials do probe reports of adverse events that follow vaccinations, including deaths, contrary to the tweet’s suggestion.

Editor’s note: SciCheck’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project is made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation has no control over our editorial decisions, and the views expressed in our articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. The goal of the project is to increase exposure to accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccines, while decreasing the impact of misinformation.

Sources

CDC Recommends Use of Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine Resume.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated 30 Apr 2021.

COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE).” Johns Hopkins University. Accessed 5 May 2021.

COVID-19 Mortality Overview.” National Center for Health Statistics. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed 5 May 2021.

COVID-19 Vaccinations in the United States.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed 5 May 2021.

Fichera, Angelo. “Flawed Report Fuels Erroneous Claims About COVID-19 Death Toll.” FactCheck.org. 2 Apr 2021.

Guidance for Certifying Deaths Due to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID–19).” Vital Statistics Reporting Guidance. National Vital Statistics System. 2 Apr 2020.

Jaramillo, Catalina. “Viral Posts Misuse VAERS Data to Make False Claims About COVID-19 Vaccines.” FactCheck.org. Updated 13 Apr 2021.

Katz, Josh, et al. “574,000 More U.S. Deaths Than Normal Since Covid-19 Struck.” New York Times. Updated 24 Mar 2021.

Medical Examiners’ and Coroners’ Handbook on Death Registration and Fetal Death Reporting.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. April 2003.

Post-COVID Conditions.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 8 Apr 2021.

Robertson, Lori and Eugene Kiely. “Q&A on the Rare Clotting Events That Caused the J&J Pause.” FactCheck.org. Updated 30 Apr 2021.

Tracking COVID-19: U.S. Public Health Surveillance and Data.” Congressional Research Service. 2 Nov 2020.

Understanding Death Data Quality: Cause of Death from Death Certificates.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed 1 Apr 2020.

Woolf, Steven H., et al. “Excess Deaths From COVID-19 and Other Causes in the US, March 1, 2020, to January 2, 2021.” Journal of the American Medical Association. 2 Apr 2021.

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