So the CDC just released data that said 94% of U.S. COVID-19 deaths had underlying medical conditions?

Data and Metrics Data Literacy Uncertainty and Misinformation


We’ve heard this interpretation is making the rounds, but it’s just not correct.

What did the CDC data say? The report summarized all deaths in the U.S. from Feb until August 22nd with COVID-19 on the death certificate (161,392 total deaths).

The CDC reports that for 6% of these deaths COVID-19 was the *only* cause mentioned.

For all other COVID-19 deaths there were on average 2-3 additional conditions or causes per death. Is this surprising? No–death certificates in the US have spaces for immediate causes of death as well as several lines for contributing conditions. For *any* cause of death, it would be unusual for only one cause to be listed.

So what were the most common additional causes of death mentioned?
• Influenza and pneumonia (68,004 cases)
• Respiratory Failure (54,803 cases)
• Respiratory Distress Syndrome (21,899 cases)
• Cardiac Arrest (20,210 cases)
• Sepsis (14,053)

So along with COVID-19, these individuals *stopped breathing*, and their *hearts stopped*.

I think we can agree that these particular additional causes of death are not “underlying medical conditions.”

What DO we know about COVID-19 mortality and chronic conditions? It’s clear that chronic conditions can raise your risk of COVID-19 mortality, but it’s important to remember that many “co-morbidities” being reported are highly common conditions that are not associated with imminent death.

For example, hypertension/high blood pressure is often counted as an underlying condition in published tallies of COVID-19 deaths:
What is the % of Americans with hypertension?
• 74.5% of Americans 60 and over
• 54.5% of Americans ages 40-59
• 22.4% of Americans ages 18-39

This means that assuming everyone who died of COVID-19 with a “co-morbidity” was already severely ill is not true.

What are the chronic conditions most strongly associated with COVID-19 complications & death?
From the evidence thus far, the conditions most associated with increased risk of severe COVID-19 include cancer, chronic kidney disease, COPD, immune-compromised from organ transplant, obesity, serious heart conditions, sickle cell disease, and Type 2 diabetes (https://bit.ly/3gD6e4g). But since COVID-19 deaths are concentrated at older ages, it is still difficult to separate out in the data the true risk of co-morbidities from the risks associated with increased age.

The troubling implication of this misinterpretation of the CDC data is that we are over-counting COVID-19 deaths and/or that many people dying of COVID-19 were on death’s door anyway.
The Nerdy Girls would be *delighted* if the actual burden of COVID-19 mortality was less than it appears. We would be the first to bring you this good news. Unfortunately, this is not what the data say.
As we recently posted, the US has seen almost 200,000 deaths ABOVE and BEYOND what would have been expected based on mortality in previous years (when lots of people were already dying of underlying chronic conditions). This “excess mortality” also coincided across time and place with the path of COVID-19 cases across the country, strongly suggesting a direct link to COVID-19 infection. (https://bit.ly/3bbS1dh)

Furthermore, demographers estimate in the US that the *average* person dying of COVID-19 had *11.7 years of remaining life expectancy.*

Not only is this average high, it means that for every person dying of COVID-19 who might have died soon anyway, another would have been expected to live *much longer than 11.7 years* in the absence of COVID-19.


COVID-19 mortality is serious stuff, and having your lungs, heart, and other organs fail is not typically considered “underlying medical conditions.”

We desperately wish it weren’t this way. But acknowledging facts is crucial to us all working TOGETHER to find solutions and properly assess the sacrifices and trade-offs we are collectively making on many fronts as we battle this pandemic.

The Nerdy Girls
Previous post on Excess mortality:
CDC Mortality Report:
Link to Demography Paper on lost life expectancy due to COVID-19
U.S. Hypertension Statistics:

Link to original FB post