What? 94% of COVID-19 Deaths in the U.S. are Fake?

How Playing with Numbers Kills Innocent People

from Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

On a phone call yesterday, someone told me that he’d heard that COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. were actually only 6% of the previously accepted figure of 185,000 deaths. If this were true, it would mean that the U.S. would only have had 11,100 deaths from COVID -19. And this would mean the U.S. had actually handled the pandemic pretty well — not as well as South Korea, it’s true, but better than many countries.

I was curious. Less than five minutes research on the Internet took me to a CDC report and there indeed was the 6% figure! Looking at it a little more closely, however, a different picture emerged. The CDC statement says that in only 6% of COVID-19 death certificates is “COVID-19” given as the sole cause of death. This is not the same as saying that the other 94% of deaths were not caused by COVID-19. That was immediately obvious. But still, I wondered, could there be anything in it at all?

As a doctor, I have had to sign death certificates so I know something of how the system works. In the US, there are four lines on which one can write four different causes of death, and most doctors are encouraged to, and do, write more than one cause, because often there is a succession of events, one leading to another, that end with death. Here are some of the commonest categories reported by the CDC as diagnoses in conjunction with COVID-19.

  • Pneumonia with COVID-19. Of course, the COVID-19 caused the pneumonia (that’s what COVID-19 does and how it often kills).
  • ARDS (Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome) with COVID-19. COVID-19 also causes ARDS — it’s a classic coronavirus effect leading to a high chance of death.
  • Respiratory arrest with COVID-19. When you die of COVID-19, yes, you do stop breathing.
  • Cardiac arrest with COVID-19. When you die of COVID-19, yes, your heart stops beating.

There are other examples like hypertension, diabetes and obesity that have been listed as co-diagnoses. While it’s true that you are more likely to die of COVID-19 if you have any of these three conditions, it is also true that most people with any of these three conditions live for decades. It is still COVID-19 that killed them, and yes, they were, at the same time, more susceptible.

You can see from these examples of double diagnosis that the CDC statement “for 6% of Coronavirus-19 deaths, COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned” does not— even slightly—mean that only 6% of previously reported deaths are caused by COVID-19. Dr. Anthony Fauci and many others have since made this point, but false facts, once launched into the cyberspace ocean, have a life of their own.

The originators and spreaders of this fake news — QAnon, some (but not all) right wing media, and the President of the United States—had made three errors:

  1. Of the thousands of figures that the CDC (and other medical and statistical sources) have given about the extensive damage caused by Covid-19 in the U.S., they selected one seemingly contradictory statistic and presented it out of context.
  2. They then converted the innocuous meaning of this statistic into a different and false statement that implies that the U.S. mishandling of the pandemic never occurred.
  3. A simple fact-check by a doctor would have shown how misguided all this is, but those responsible did not do the fact-checking before publishing and spreading the misinformation to others.

You cannot, by any legal definition, state that these purveyors of misinformation are murderers, and yet this kind of misinformation can lead to greater likelihood of death.

“Ah,” someone might say in response to the apparent news of the hugely-lowered death rate, “it’s all been exaggerated, I don’t need to take all these tedious precautions.”

That person might be fine, but when a million people stop taking sensible and proven precautions against the spread of the virus, a certain small percentage are likely to die from COVID-19 unnecessarily, or spread it unknowingly to others. The proof of this is what happened when social distancing and mask-wearing mandates were relaxed in the West and the South of the U.S. during a time when numbers of COVID-19 cases were still on the rise in many of the States in these areas. Two weeks after the mandates were relaxed, (the timing of this predicted in advance by epidemiologists) COVID-19 cases increased massively, and two weeks after that (this timing also predicted in advance by epidemiologists), the COVID-19 death rate increased by tens of thousands — the real death rate, that is, not the fake one created this week. These predictions were not hard to make: it takes COVID-19 up to a couple of weeks to cause serious symptoms and an average of a further two weeks to cause death.

We are told, “Curiosity killed the cat!” The name of that cat was Ignorance.

How can we support ourselves, and those who may not have the time or resources or knowledge to fact-check, to become more curious about what is or isn’t true? It’s a complicated question because in us-vs-them scenarios, judgment gives us false certainty. Curiosity opens. Judgment shuts. And how does someone who has not had the good fortune to be trained to be curious resist the false knowledge that is purveyed for political ends?

The essence of curiosity is open-mindedness—being willing to question and being willing to admit that we may not know the answer. Curiosity helps us challenge our own assumptions. “I wonder if that’s really true.” “How can I find out what’s really going on here?” “How can I discover which sources of information are reliable?”

Curiosity hasn’t always had such a good rap of course — we’ve been warned, “Curiosity killed the cat!” But the name of that cat was Ignorance.

It is ignorance that is the real killer. Ignorance as in lack of knowledge. And also, ignorance as in the act of ignoring the knowledge that is freely available. It is a major reason why the United States (187,000 deaths from COVID-19 as of this writing) has a death rate per million from COVID-19 that is 8,000% higher than the death rate from South Korea (314 deaths from COVID-19 as of this writing). South Korea, which at one time had the most COVID-19 infections in the world, has been a model of how to handle the pandemic. In general, countries that followed their protocols have done well — both in stopping the spread of the virus and economically — and those that haven’t, haven’t. These protocols have not been secret (mandated social distancing, mask-wearing in clearly designated situations, early testing, and effective tracing and quarantining of contacts), but many countries have more or less ignored them or have been slow, half-hearted and indecisive in implementing them. And some poorer countries have not had the resources to implement them.

Curiosity can help us find the truth, avoid jumping to risk-laden or divisive conclusions, and, in the case of COVID-19, save lives through clearer knowledge. As for the purveyors of dangerous falsehoods, they may be less interested in curiosity, but whether they can continue to have the power to spread false news depends on us — our determination to find what’s true, our choice of what we decide to read or view, and our decision on how we vote.

The points on curiosity are from the newly released, #1 bestseller IT’S A FREAKIN’ MESS: How to Thrive in Divisive Times, by Dr. Richard Gillett. Used by permission of Kingston Bridge Press.

Available for purchase via itsafreakinmess.com



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Physician, psychiatrist, keynote speaker, and author of #1 bestseller: IT’S A FREAKIN’ MESS: How to Thrive in Divisive Times — itsafreakinmess.com