The CDC's most recent death count figures, updated on August 12 and covering the period from the first known coronavirus case in the U.S. all the way to Aug. 8, show that a total of 145,378 Americans have died from COVID-19.
Of these, six percent only list COVID-19 as the only cause mentioned. The CDC bases its classifications on the information listed in death certificates.
“For deaths with conditions or causes in addition to COVID-19, on average, there were 2.6 additional conditions or causes per death,” wrote the CDC in an explanatory note.
In its report, the CDC also provided a list of comorbidities – health conditions and contributing causes of death – mentioned on death certificates in conjunction with deaths involving COVID-19. Included in these comorbidities was a category called “intentional and unintentional injury, poisoning and other adverse events,” which were cited in 4,401 cases, or around three percent of the total COVID-19 deaths.
“From looking at some of these records, it seems that these are largely cases where someone hospitalized with a non-fatal injury has contracted COVID-19 while in the hospital and subsequently died,” Jeff Lancashire, a spokesman for the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, said to Just the News.
Medical professionals refer to a CDC-endorsed document in determining whether a factor in a COVID-19 death is listed as a direct cause of death or whether it merely contributed to death but not the underlying cause. The underlying cause of death (UCOD) is defined as the disease or injury that initiated the events resulting in death.
“If COVID–19 played a role in the death, this condition should be specified on the death certificate,” the guidance states. “In many cases, it is likely that it will be the UCOD, as it can lead to various life-threatening conditions, such as pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).”
In addition, the guidance states that in a case where “a definite diagnosis of COVID-19 cannot be made, but is suspected or likely,” then medical professionals can still report COVID-19 as the “probable” or “presumed” cause of death.
As the guidance has a very general definition of a COVID-19 fatality, some have argued that the country's COVID-19 death count may actually be inflated.
“We've taken a very liberal approach to mortality,” stated Dr. Deborah Birx, Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, in a press conference last April.
“There are other countries that if you had a pre-existing condition, and let’s say the virus caused you to go to the I.C.U., and then have a heart or kidney problem—some countries are recording that as a heart issue or a kidney issue and not a COVID-19 death,” she added.
Others, however, argue that America's COVID-19 death toll is actually undercounted as statistics don't capture people who've died in their houses or nursing homes without ever being tested.
Talking to the New York Times in May, Dr. Alicia Skarimbas, a New Jersey physician who has treated numerous COVID-19 patients, said that during the early days of the pandemic, some of her colleagues listed the cause of death only as “respiratory failure” for suspected COVID-19 patients who were not tested.
“I have yet to have anyone infected with COVID die from anything else,” she said in another interview with Times. She argued that it was “ludicrous” to try and separate out the cause of death in COVID-19 patients.
A recent Yale University study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine also supports the argument that COVID-19 deaths in the country are being undercounted. The study looked at the increase in the number of deaths in the country for specific times of the year compared to the same periods in 2019. Yale researchers argued that the sudden jump can be attributed COVID-19.
“Our analyses suggest that the official tally of deaths due to COVID-19 represent a substantial undercount of the true burden,” said lead author Dan Weinberger.
On Wednesday, the United States reported its highest single-day death toll from COVID-19 since May with 1,500 patients succumbing to the disease on Wednesday. This brings the nation's total death toll to 167,242 according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
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