To date, more than 183,000 people in the United States have died of COVID-19, and over 6 million have contracted the coronavirus. While leaders in other countries have moved quickly to contain the virus, politicians here have attracted international attention for their failure to respond, choosing instead to repeatedly downplay the severity of the pandemic.
Now, COVID naysayers have cherrypicked a new piece of data to bolster their claims: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6 percent of reported COVID-19 deaths listed the virus as the sole cause of death, meaning the other 94 percent had additional health issues at their time of death (called comorbidities). This thinking isn’t just morally repugnant—it’s also a flat-out misunderstanding of the statistics.
This all appears to have started with a tweet from a follower of the conspiracy theory group QAnon who misinterpreted this statistic to mean that only 6 percent of those deaths were “actually” from COVID. It went viral—even more so after President Donald Trump retweeted it. Twitter later removed the tweet and told the Washington Post it violated the site’s policies about coronavirus misinformation. But the claims are still making their way around the internet—and they play well with previous coronavirus conspiracy theories, like the incorrect claim that hospitals purposely inflate their reports of coronavirus patients or that public health departments are inflating COVID-19 deaths.
The fundamental flaw of this new conspiracy theory is the assumption that the only “true” coronavirus deaths are ones that list only COVID-19 as the cause of death. But listing comorbidities alongside COVID-19 does not make those deaths any less attributable to the virus. Some of those comorbidities are caused by COVID-19; for instance, according to the CDC’s data, more than 14,000 people died also of sepsis, which is known to develop in COVID-19 patients. And over 54,000 people—around 30 percent of the total U.S. deaths—have respiratory failure listed as a comorbidity; it’s well established that COVID-19 causes major respiratory issues.
Even if virus victims’ comorbidities are not directly caused by COVID-19, the virus could still very much be the primary cause of death. The CDC lists as comorbidities some long-term health issues like diabetes or hypertension. From the beginning of the pandemic, experts have warned that people with these conditions may be at higher risk for contracting the virus and may suffer more serious effects from it. But consider that many people with diabetes and hypertension are completely fine until they contract COVID-19; it is entirely possible to live a full life with these conditions, especially if they are well-managed. While diabetes and hypertension may have complicated people’s physiological responses to COVID-19, it is still very much the virus that killed them.
Beyond being flat-out wrong, this conspiracy theory is also cruel. The original post says that “94% [of people who died of COVID-19] had 2-3 other serious illnesses and the overwhelming majority were of very advanced age.” This line of argument implies that death should somehow be acceptable or expected for people who are older, or have a serious illness. Minimizing these deaths might be comforting for younger, able-bodied people, but there are 52 million people in the U.S. who are older than 65, and millions who have at least one condition commonly listed as a comorbidity; for instance, 9.4 percent of people in the U.S. have diabetes. The CDC says that 6 in 10 Americans have at least one chronic health condition. Their lives matter. And the lives of those who died of COVID-19 along with a comorbidity mattered, too.
As COVID-19 death has become normalized, it’s easy for the living—especially COVID-19 deniers—to forget that behind these statistics were real people: They were parents, neighbors, spouses, siblings, friends, doctors, bus drivers, grocery store employees. The scale of the loss is unimaginable, and I wish that those deaths just hadn’t happened, because they didn’t have to. But they did, and there is no way to explain that away.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.