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Is US COVID-19 death count inflated?

Is US COVID-19 death count inflated?
© Octavio Jones/Getty Images

On August 26, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a report showing that in 94 percent of the roughly 180,000 deaths that have been attributed to COVID-19, “on average, there were 2.6 additional conditions or causes per death.”

As the CDC report notes, “For 6% of the deaths, COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned.”

In other words, 94 percent of Americans who have died from coronavirus from the week ending February 1, 2020 to the week ending August 22, 2020 had, on average, almost three comorbidities that played a role in their death.

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According to CDC’s report, the leading comorbidities among these deaths were respiratory diseases, circulatory diseases, sepsis, malignant neoplasms, diabetes, obesity and Alzheimer’s disease, respectively.

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, many have questioned whether death counts attributed to the pandemic have been inflated.

Anecdotally, there are several stories of cases in which people with COVID-19 had deadly heart attacks, yet these cases were coded as COVID-19 deaths. In one extreme case, a Florida man who died in a motorcycle crash happened to also have COVID-19 at the time, yet was coded as having died from COVID-19, not because of the motorcycle accident.

According to Daniel Spitz, chief medical examiner in Macomb County, Michigan, “I think a lot of clinicians are putting that condition [COVID-19] on death certificates when it might not be accurate because they died with coronavirus and not of coronavirus.”

And Spitz is not alone in his questioning of death counts. As of July 21 (the most recent poll), the Axios-Ipsos coronavirus index poll showed, “Almost a third (31%) of Americans believe the real death toll of the pandemic is less than the 135,000 officially reported as of mid-July. A similarly worded question in early May found that a quarter (23%) said the official count inflated the actual toll.”

Interestingly, the poll also showed that, “Republicans (59% from 40%) and people who get most of their political information from Fox News (61% from 44%) are the most likely to say that the real number of deaths is less than the official count.”

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On the other hand, “Democrats (61% from 63%) continue to mostly believe the real toll of the pandemic is greater than what has been officially reported.”

This is especially troubling. If Americans are divided along political lines when it comes to something that should be as cut-and-dry as death counts during a pandemic, that is much more telling about the lack of credibility most Americans (from all political persuasions) have in the nation’s major institutions.

Yet, this should also be expected to some degree. A plethora of polls show that most Americans do not trust the federal government, state government, and even their local government, when it comes to all things related to coronavirus. And needless to say, many Americans are skeptical about the media’s portrayal of COVID-19. But that should come as little surprise, seeing as Americans’ trust in the media has been waning for years.

When public trust in major societal institutions erodes, bad things tend to happen. As Americans, we need to have at least a reasonable sense of trust in the media and those in government in order for our society to function cohesively, let alone thrive.

As history shows, when people lose faith in these vital institutions, society can fragment quickly. Public trust is a prerequisite for a free society. Just ask those who lived in the Soviet Union or East Germany, where government officials and the media routinely lied to their citizens.

And, on the other hand, when people have a strong sense of confidence that the media and government officials are telling the truth, societal unrest is less likely, people are more prone to trust one another, and the nation is a better place.

Let’s hope that the release of this report begins to bring back Americans’ trust in government and maybe one day, the Fourth Estate, too.

Chris Talgo (ctalgo@heartland.orgis an editor at The Heartland Institute.