Websites and Social Posts Misrepresent CDC Director’s Comments on Breakthrough Deaths

By D'Angelo Gore

Posted on May 21, 2021

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SciCheck Digest

In a May 16 interview, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director said the agency knew of 223 breakthrough fatalities among fully vaccinated individuals, but “not all … died of COVID.” That is not an admission that “many, many hospitals” previously “overcounted” COVID-19 deaths, as conservative websites have reported.



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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is tracking hospitalizations and fatalities for so-called “COVID-19 vaccine breakthrough cases.”

The CDC says a breakthrough case occurs when an individual tests positive for SARS-CoV-2 — the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 — more than two weeks “after they have completed all recommended doses” of one of three vaccines currently authorized for emergency use in the United States.

In a May 16 interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” the CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky,  said the agency so far was aware of 223 deaths among individuals with breakthrough cases of COVID-19.

However, not all of them died from the disease, she told CNN’s Dana Bash.

Bash, May 16: Are you aware of any fully vaccinated individual who has died of COVID-19?

Walensky: We do keep a track of this on our website.

We are asking hospitals and health care facilities to send us cases of what we’re calling breakthrough infections. They occur. They are rare. We are aware of 223, as of May 10, that are among the 115 million people that had been vaccinated by that time.

I also want to convey that now many, many hospitals are screening people for COVID when they come in, so not all of those 223 cases who had COVID actually died of COVID. They may have had mild disease, but died, for example, of a heart attack.

Walensky did not provide the exact numbers, but a footnote on the CDC’s webpage at the time said 42 of the 223 fatal cases were “reported as asymptomatic or not related to COVID-19.” As of May 17, there were 353 fatal cases and 63 were a asymptomatic or not related to the disease.

After the interview, The Gateway Pundit, a conservative news website, falsely claimed that Walensky’s remarks amounted to an admission that the CDC’s overall total for deaths from COVID-19 is inflated.

The headline of its May 17 story was “CDC Director Finally Admits that COVID Cases were Over-Counted in Hospitals – Just as Gateway Pundit and Donald Trump Reported in August.”

“On Sunday CDC Director Rochelle Walensky finally admitted that ‘many, many hospitals’ were counting COVID deaths to include cases that were not COVID deaths,” the website reported.

A day later, the Conservative Daily Post, following the Gateway Pundit’s lead, also said that “[t]he CDC admitted that COVID numbers were hugely exaggerated.”

That’s false.

In late August, both the Gateway Pundit and former President Trump promoted a tweet that inaccurately said: “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 94% had 2 to 3 other serious illnesses and the overwhelming majority were of very advanced age.”

But as we later wrote in early September, the fact that the CDC said 6% of the total deaths were solely attributed to COVID-19 on death certificates does not mean the disease was not the leading contributor in the other 94% of the deaths. 

And nothing Walensky said in the CNN interview changes that — or indicates that the Gateway Pundit and Trump were actually “right,” as the Gateway Pundit declared.

We’ve noted several times before that COVID-19 often causes other serious conditions that lead to death, such as pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome. It can also exacerbate existing illnesses that people already have, such as diabetes or hypertension, which are called comorbidities.

For our article last year, Jeff Lancashire, a spokesman for the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, told us that COVID-19 was listed as the underlying cause in 92% of those deaths. That means it was the condition that started the chain of events that resulted in someone dying.  

More recently, the CDC said the disease was listed as the underlying cause of death in at least 90% of 574,054 deaths, as of May 19. “For the remaining deaths, COVID-19 was listed as a contributing cause of death,” the agency said.

Walensky’s remarks about some people dying with the disease instead of from it — which does happen — also led social media users to claim that the CDC has changed the way deaths from COVID-19 are being reported.

For example, one Instagram user wrote: “So for anyone who died of anything last year but happened to have Covid, their death was marked as Covid-19. But now, if anyone dies with Covid after being fully vaccinated… but there are other comorbidities… Covid will not be considered the cause of death. Funny how that works. The CDC is an embarrassment.”

But it is simply not the case that “anyone who died of anything last year but happened to have Covid” was counted as a COVID-19 death. And the CDC denies that it is now reporting fatalities in breakthrough cases differently.

“As for how CDC is counting COVID-19 deaths, there has been no change,” Kristen Nordlund, a CDC spokesperson, told FactCheck.org in an email.

The CDC says it relies on state and territory health departments to report data on people with breakthrough cases, and the data include hospitalized or fatal cases due to any cause, including non-COVID-19 causes.

For a fatal case, the agency asks those health departments to provide a copy of the death certificate “linked to the case so that a determination could be made if COVID-19 contributed to the cause of death.”

Those death certificates are also how the CDC determines COVID-19 deaths in non-breakthrough cases. And the CDC has long advised physicians, medical examiners and others who are responsible for filling out the documents not to list COVID-19 if the disease played no part in a death.

“I think there has been consistency all along and nothing that Walensky said suggests that they made a change,” Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, told us in a phone interview. 

He said there would be “huge backlash” in the medical field if the CDC now tried to change the way it compiles and collects death certificate data.

It all needs to be done in a consistent way to monitor trends, Plescia said.

We have asked the CDC for more details about the reporting of breakthrough cases but so far have not received a response.

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

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 Vaccine Breakthrough Case Investigation and Reporting. Cdc.gov. Accessed 21 May 2021.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 Mortality Overview. Cdc.gov. Accessed 21 May 2021.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Understanding Death Data Quality: Cause of Death from Death Certificates.” Accessed 21 May 2021.

National Center for Health Statistics. “Guidance for certifying deaths due to COVID–19.” Vital Statistics Reporting Guidance. Report No. 3. Apr 2020.

“State of the Union with Jake Tapper & Dana Bash.” Transcript. CNN. 16 May 2021.

Hoft, Jim. “BOOM! CDC Director Finally Admits that COVID Cases were Over-Counted in Hospitals– Just as Gateway Pundit and Donald Trump Reported in August.” Gateway Pundit. 17 May 2021.

Matthews, April. “CDC Director Admits Trump Was Right, COVID Cases ‘Hugely’ Overcounted In Great Lie.” Conservative Daily Post. 18 May 2021.

Spencer, Saranac. “CDC Did Not ‘Admit Only 6%’ of Recorded Deaths from COVID-19.” FactCheck.org 1 Sep 2020.

Fichera, Angelo. “Social Media Posts Make Baseless Claim on COVID-19 Death Toll.” Factcheck.org. 8 Apr 2020.

Fichera, Angelo. “Trump Baselessly Suggests COVID-19 Deaths Inflated for Profit.” FactCheck.org. 29 Oct 2020.

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

Susman, Ed. “Was COVID-19 Really the Killer?” MedPage Today. 15 Oct 2020.

Nordlund, Kristen. Spokesperson, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Email sent to FactCheck.org. 17 May 2021.

Plescia, Marcus. Chief medical officer, Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. Interview with FactCheck.org. 20 May 2021.

 

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