I heard somewhere that doctors and hospitals are falsely claiming deaths are due to COVID-19 and incorrectly increasing the case counts. Is that true?

Data and Metrics Uncertainty and Misinformation

A: No. There is no evidence that healthcare professionals are inflating the numbers of COVID-19 cases.

Understanding the role of death certificates and how they are completed can help you get to the bottom of it.

There has been increased circulation of a false claim that clinicians and hospitals are inflating the number of COVID-19 deaths. The assertion goes like this: “Somebody has heart disease, catches COVID-19, and eventually dies from COVID-19 pneumonia. If they didn’t have heart disease, maybe their case of COVID-19 wouldn’t have been so bad. So, isn’t heart disease the real cause of death, not COVID-19?”

No. When somebody dies, a clinician, medical examiner, or coroner completes a death certificate. The death certificate asks for the immediate cause of death and then for significant conditions that may have played a role. In our example, the immediate cause of death would be pneumonia from COVID-19. This is what caused the person to die the day that they did. Heart disease would be a significant contributing condition, or comorbidity. So, any other medical problems that might have contributed to the cause of death are explicitly reported on the form. Tracking comorbidities is one way we know which conditions increase someone’s risk of having severe disease from COVID-19.

This is how it works with any illness or disease state, not just in COVID-19. Let’s consider an example where a person diagnosed with terminal cancer is killed in a tragic car accident. The medical examiner would report the trauma from the car accident as the immediate cause of death. Their cancer diagnosis in this situation may or may not even be documented on the form, unless it was felt that this impacted the car accident in some way. This person may have had some days left to live, if the car accident hadn’t happened.

Death certificates are part of a public health system to track causes of death to help develop regulations, prevention strategies, and treatment so that communities and individuals can have longer, happier, healthier lives. It is a professional duty to make information on a death certificate as accurate as possible. Healthcare professionals are not putting their thumb on the scale.

On the contrary, we have reason to believe that COVID-19 deaths are underreported. See our previous post for more details. Also check out this post for more info about COVID-19 mortality data.

Scientific American debunks this myth here.

If you want to get really in the details of death certificates, here you go.

You can check out what a death certificate looks like here.

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