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Why COVID-19 isn't the only cause listed in CDC's death numbers

The report shows pre-existing conditions and other factors played a role in 94% of COVID deaths.

MINNESOTA, USA — There is new skepticism about the nationwide death total after a new report from the CDC went viral this weekend.

Some people on social media claim the report shows 94% of the COVID deaths so far are misleading and that the agency is padding its numbers.

The phrase “Only Six Percent” was trending on Twitter this weekend with more than 100,000 tweets.

Dr. David Hilden, who serves as the Vice President of Medical Affairs at Hennepin Healthcare, explained why so many people are misinterpreting what this new report is truly all about.

"Without a little context, you can say well look at that, they're lying, they're not,” Dr. Hilden says.

"It does not at all mean that only 6% of the reported deaths were from COVID-19 and the other 94% died of something else. That is simply false."

Dr. Hilden says the CDC report is following guidelines and industry practices that have been used for decades.

He says death certificates include every condition and factor that played a role in a person’s death.

He says that if a person dies from a heart attack, the heart attack itself would be the primary cause of death, but a secondary cause of death, or a contributing factor may include things like diabetes, obesity, or heavy drug use.

But at the end of the day, the heart attack is why the person died.

Dr. Hilden says the same goes for COVID-19.

If a patient contracted COVID-19 and the virus eventually led to pneumonia or respiratory failure, both of those factors would also show up on the patient’s death certificate.

“First, you look at what was the immediate cause of death, what killed them at this moment, and in some cases it might be a cardiac arrest, but then there’s always the next line on the certificate that asks what caused “that” and if the cardiac arrest was caused by COVID-19, then COVID-19 is truly the cause of death,” Dr. Hilden says.

Many people online are making the argument that the CDC is padding the numbers by including patients who recently tested positive for COVID-19, but happened to die from something else.

Dr. Hilden says that’s simply not true. Those cases would not be included in the final numbers.

“That’s 100% the wrong takeaway.”

Dr. Hilden says the report doesn't downplay the virus, if anything it shows how devastating it can be for people with pre-existing conditions.

"This is confirmation that if you have underlying health conditions, you should double down on your preventative measures to prevent getting COVID-19.”

KARE- 1 News reached out to the CDC for comment.

The agency sent us this reply:

Please see explanation from our CDC/NCHS Mortality Statistics Branch:

Death certificates list any causes or conditions that contributed to the death. These causes are entered into the death certificate by a physician, medical examiner, or coroner. Death certificates may have one or more causes or conditions listed, as determined based on the medical expertise of that professional.

The underlying cause of death is the condition that began the chain of events that ultimately led to the person’s death. In 92% of all deaths that mention COVID-19, COVID-19 is listed as the underlying cause of death.

As of August 22, there were 161,392 death certificates that listed COVID-19 as a cause of death.

In 6% of the death certificates that list COVID-19, only one cause or condition is listed.

In 94% of deaths with COVID-19, other conditions are listed in addition to COVID-19. These causes may include chronic conditions like diabetes or hypertension.

They may also include acute conditions that occurred as a result of COVID-19, such as pneumonia or respiratory failure.

In the table “Conditions contributing to deaths involving coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), by age group, United States” the number of deaths with each condition or cause is shown for all deaths and by age groups. This does not represent new information as NCHS has been publishing this same information since the outset when we began posting data on COVID-19 deaths on our web site.

Other CDC points of relevance:

These data are consistent with CDC guidance that those with underlying medical conditions are at greater risk for severe illness and death from COVID-19.

    • It is especially important for people at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19, and those who live with them, to protect themselves from getting COVID-19.
    • The best way to protect yourself and to help reduce the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 is to:

Limit your interactions with other people as much as possible.

Take precautions to prevent getting COVID-19, like wearing a mask and staying at least 6 feet apart when you do interact with others.

    • If you start feeling sick and think you may have COVID-19, get in touch with your healthcare provider within 24 hours.