Understanding the CDC’s new data on COVID-19 deaths


Recently, some on social media have shared a misrepresentation of an August 26 update to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID-19 data webpage. In the update, the CDC acknowledges that only 6% of the nation’s COVID-19 deaths do not involve any other conditions that lead to death, also known as comorbidities. The data was provided after analyzing death certificates of the over 170,000 people who have passed away with COVID-19.

Attention to the CDC’s update has been blown out of proportion due to Twitter’s disproportionate response censoring a tweet from President Trump which advanced a misconstrued interpretation of the 6% figure. Understanding what the CDC is actually saying can provide a clearer picture of the relative risk of the virus to different segments of the population. 

This does not mean, as the president insinuated, that the CDC is grossly overestimating the death count, and the true COVID death count is only 6% of what is reported. While this worry might have merit, the United Kingdom’s National Health Service recently removed over 5,000 deaths from the official count of COVID-19 deaths. The relevance of the US CDC’s recent update contains nowhere near the significance. It shows us that the vast majority of recorded deaths—94%—are individuals who had at least two other serious conditions, in addition to COVID-19, that contributed to their passing.

Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said yesterday, responding to a question on this idea, that “no one should be comforted by this,” because the coronavirus “operates in just the same nefarious fashion” as other viruses like HIV or Influenza. He is right. The coronavirus can cause serious illness in everyone but most acutely, and most likely, in those older than 70 and those with other health conditions.

But, this is one of the most important things to highlight when discussing this new disease, yet the Mills administration, including Dr. Shah, chose to represent this disease to Mainers as one that is extremely contagious and deadly for all of society.

Especially under an ever-lengthening state of emergency, it is imperative for public officials to meet a high standard of transparency. Governor Mills and her administration currently enjoy full authority to plan society and the economy. The truth is that serious risk does not lie with everyone equally, it falls most disproportionately on elderly folks and those with preexisting conditions like respiratory illness, diabetes, and hypertension.

This is the eternal fact of the coronavirus panic, and one that state officials have downplayed since the beginning to avoid a sense of “complacency” among the public. 

It’s as if they know that just giving people the facts would allow Mainers to assess the risks for themselves. But then, they couldn’t wield enormous emergency powers and alter the lives of thousands in a single day.

State officials early in the pandemic ignored clear evidence—actual case data from Asia—showing the risk of serious illness and death to older people as much, much higher than younger people. Today, we see this bear out in our own data. A conservative estimate in the journal Lancet suggests that those in their 70s are more than 50 times more likely to die from contracting COVID-19 than are those in their 30s. People in their 80s are almost 100 times more likely to succumb to COVID-19 than 30-year-olds.

Even CDC data comparing those aged 18-29 versus other age groups show that those between 75-84 years of age face a risk of hospitalization 8 times higher and of death 220 times higher than the comparison group.

The fact that the vast majority of those who encounter a severe illness or pass away from the coronavirus are very elderly and have a preexisting condition further demonstrates the relative overreaction by public health and political leaders. In their attempts to “beat” the virus (as if that were even possible), they forgot about the myriad other problems related to the economy, public health, and the social fabric that have objectively gotten worse as a result of government action.

We have forgotten the nature of public policy. Every policy is a trade-off. There is a reason that many economists and academics calculate the effects of policy changes by measuring their effects on Quality-adjusted Life Years (QALYs), or one year lived in perfect health. It’s an uncomfortable topic, yet a real aspect of making wide-reaching policy decisions.

When looking at QALYs, policymakers ask the question of why a policy should aim to extend the lives of those over 80 for a few more months than they would have had versus degrading quality of life for those who might have decades more left. This measurement might seem cold and callous, yet it stands the test of reason. If we acknowledge that every decision we make potentially affects every life, that there are always winners and losers in government policy, and if our overall goal is to preserve life, we must view every policy with a level head.

The unfortunate part of the coronavirus saga of this year is that we have been duped into thinking that government policy can control a natural phenomenon and somehow save from death Americans who have already lived long lives. The average life expectancy of an American is 78 years old, the same as the median age of deaths due to COVID-19, whether other conditions were present or not.

Even among the oldest group of Americans, those 85 and older, COVID-19 is attributable to fewer than 10% of deaths. For those younger than 55, COVID-19 accounts for just 5.5% of deaths. 

It’s okay to look at the risks of this virus realistically, and to reject the reactionary nature of fear-based policymaking. It is clear that the ever-expanding list of societal and economic consequences of the lockdowns have been a greater detriment to people than the virus.

If only our public officials could trust individuals and communities to make decisions based on their circumstances, instead of trying to plan the world.


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