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In January 2022, a number of conservative commentators started posting messages falsely claiming that 75% of all COVID-19 deaths involved people with at least four comorbidities. This was evidence, they claimed, that the COVID-19 pandemic was overblown and that the disease (which has resulted in more than 830,000 deaths in the United States alone) was not as dangerous as the government was saying.
Donald Trump Jr., for example, wrote on Twitter:
Del Bigtree, a television producer and CEO of the anti-vaccination group Informed Consent Action Network, wrote: “CDC director admits over 75% of Covid deaths had at least 4 pathological conditions (comorbidities). Since the total death rate is 0.27% this means healthy people have a 0.0% death risk. #WakeUp #NothingToFearButFearItself.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not say that all COVID-19 deaths involved people with four comorbidities. The CDC said that a new study found that 75% of such deaths among fully vaccinated individuals involved people with four comorbidities. Contrary to the posts above, this study supports the idea that vaccinations are quite effective against COVID-19.
The claim stems from remarks made by CDC Director Rochelle Walensky about a recent COVID-19 study during an appearance on the television show “Good Morning America.” Walensky was responding to a question about some “encouraging headlines” regarding a new study talking about “how well vaccines are working to prevent severe illness.” Walensky briefly summarized the study on 1.2 million vaccinated individuals and then said: “The overwhelming number of deaths, over 75%, occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities. So really these are people who were unwell to begin with.”
It is this last sentence that went viral on social media. In the clip’s full context, however, it’s clear that Walensky wasn’t talking about all COVID-19 deaths, but COVID-19 deaths among fully vaccinated individuals.
Here’s a transcript of this exchange:
“Good Morning America” host: “I want to ask you about the encouraging headlines that we’re talking about this morning, a new studying talking about just how well vaccines are working to prevent severe illness. Given that, is it time for us to start rethinking how we’re living with this virus if it is potentially here to stay?”
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky: A really important study if I may summarize it. A study of 1.2 million people who are vaccinated between December and October and demonstrated that severe disease occurred in about 0.015% of the people who receive their primary series. And death in 0.003% of those people.
The overwhelming number of deaths, over 75%, occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities. So really these are people who were unwell to begin with.
This exchange can be glimpsed around the 2:30 mark of the following video:
While it’s clear in the original video that Walensky was talking about fully vaccinated individuals, an edited version of this clip makes it seem as if Walensky was referring to all COVID-19 deaths. In the following video, the reporter’s question (which notes that this is “encouraging” news about “how well vaccines are working”) and Walensky’s summary of the study (which notes that she is referring to a study of 1.2 million vaccinated individuals) were both removed.
The CDC director just said over 75% of “covid deaths” occurred in people with at least four comorbidities. Since Biden can’t shut down covid, suddenly all this data is getting shared publicly. pic.twitter.com/NKvproy3lx
— Clay Travis (@ClayTravis) January 10, 2022
Haines, Tim. “CDC Director Walensky: 75% Of Covid Deaths Had At Least 4 Comorbidities.” Real Clear Politics, 10 Jan. 2022, https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2022/01/10/cdc_director_rochelle_walensky_75_of_covid_deaths_had_at_least_4_comorbidities.html.
Rutz, David. “CDC Director’s ABC News Interview Remarks about COVID-19 Victims with ‘comorbidities’ Spark Confusion.” Fox News, 10 Jan. 2022, https://www.foxnews.com/media/cdc-director-remarks-comorbities.
Yek, Christina. “Risk Factors for Severe COVID-19 Outcomes Among Persons Aged ≥18 Years Who Completed a Primary COVID-19 Vaccination Series — 465 Health Care Facilities, United States, December 2020–October 2021.” MMWR. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, vol. 71, 2022. www.cdc.gov, https://doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm7101a4.