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Fact check: Not all COVID-19 victims had underlying health conditions; new coronavirus is not ‘just another flu’

As COVID-19 deaths surpass 1.4 million globally and 260,000 in the United States, a post on Facebook falsely claims that “nobody has died from the coronavirus without having an underlying condition” and that “it’s just another type of flu.” Though pre-existing conditions have contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans infected with the novel coronavirus, this is not the case for all those who have lost their lives to the disease. Moreover, COVID-19 was still what caused the deaths of those with underlying health issues.

Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS

Facebook posts making this claim can be found here ,

here and

here .

As stated here on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) “Provisional Death Counts for Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)” page, COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned for 6% of recorded U.S. deaths. In other words, nearly 14,000 of the more than 231,000 processed death certificates included in the CDC’s provisional death count had only COVID-19 listed as the cause of death (here).

In late August, social media users – citing the statement on the CDC’s provisional COVID-19 death count page that “For 6% of the deaths, COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned” - began falsely claiming that the CDC had “quietly updated” its COVID-19 data “to admit that only 6% of all the 153,504 (U.S.) deaths recorded actually died from (COVID-19).” In early September, the Reuters Fact Check team debunked that claim here .

Previous claims that the CDC “admitted that only 6% of… (COVID-19-related) deaths recorded actually died from Covid” were false, because the remaining 94% of cases were instances of comorbidity (the existence of two or more conditions or illnesses in a patient). This does not exclude COVID-19, but combines it with other illnesses, often triggered by the new coronavirus itself.

The left-most column in the CDC comorbidities dataset (here), labeled “Conditions Contributing to Deaths where COVID-19 was listed on the death certificate,” includes both serious complications from COVID-19 infection -- such as respiratory failure, pneumonia, and adult respiratory distress syndrome (here) - as well as pre-existing conditions that increase the risk of severe illness from COVID-19, such as diabetes and obesity (here).

Dr. Marc Larsen, an emergency medicine physician who serves as Incident Command Operations Chair for COVID-19 at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Kansas (here), previously told Reuters via email that when filling out death certificates, physicians will typically use a standard format and list the primary cause of death as well as other contributing factors. 

He provided an analogy to someone dying of a gunshot wound whose death certificate might list gunshot wound, along with hemorrhagic shock and liver laceration, as causes of death, with homelessness (associated with greater exposure to potential violence, here ), as a contributing factor. For someone who died of COVID-19, the death certificate might read COVID-19, as well as pneumonia and Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) as causes of death, with diabetes and hypertension as contributing factors.  

Larsen said that in both cases, “without those two triggers,” a gunshot wound and COVID-19, “the death would not have occurred. Nothing that appears after those primary diagnoses would have transpired had it not been for the primary event. In these examples, the patients did not die directly from being homeless or being diabetic with hypertension, however, they were contributing factors.”

Published in May, another Reuters fact check of viral claims that “all patients who die of COVID-19 have serious health problems” can be found here .

As for the Nov. 17 post’s statement that COVID-19 is “just another type of flu,” the Reuters Fact Check team has previously debunked social media claims comparing the novel coronavirus to annual influenzas here and here .

Scientists are still trying to pinpoint the mortality rate of COVID-19, but have predicted it is higher than that of influenza (here) .

As explained  here  by the CDC, “COVID-19 seems to spread more easily than flu and causes more serious illnesses in some people. It can also take longer before people show symptoms and people can be contagious for longer."

Globally, the World Health Organization estimates between 290,000 and 650,000 people die of seasonal influenza each year (tinyurl.com/umr22lm). The worldwide death toll for COVID-19 currently stands at nearly 1.4 million (coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html) .

Many considerations need to factored in as researchers continue work to calculate the mortality rate of COVID-19 (here) – including how testing is carried out, the way deaths are counted, and the age and pre-existing conditions of a patient – but available figures do not support the claim that the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is “just another type of flu.”

VERDICT

False. Not all COVID-19 victims had underlying health conditions, and those who did still died because of COVID-19. The new coronavirus is not “just another type of flu.”

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact-checking work here .

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