After President Donald Trump retweeted a claim that discounted the coronavirus death toll in the United States over the weekend, Twitter took down the post that spread false information on Sunday.
The tweet was originally posted by “Mel Q,” a follower of the baseless conspiracy theory QAnon, which posits that the president is battling a cabal of Satan-worshiping child sex traffickers. It was copied from a Facebook post and claimed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had “quietly updated the Covid number to admit that only 6%” of reported deaths – or about 9,000 – “actually died from Covid.”
The rest were people who “had 2-3 other serious illnesses,” said the tweet, which has since been replaced with a message saying it “is no longer available because it violated the Twitter Rules.” A Twitter spokesperson said the tweet violated the company’s covid-19 misinformation policy.
The claim appears to be a reference to the CDC’s Aug. 26 update to its death data and resources page, which noted that in 6% of reported deaths, covid-19 “was the only cause mentioned.” However, that does not mean only 6% of reported deaths are attributed to the virus – it means 94 percent of people had at least one additional factor contributing to their deaths.
The president also retweeted a link to an article by far-right Gateway Pundit – which remains on his page – containing the “Mel Q” tweet and, using the 6% figure to attack members of Trump’s own coronavirus task force.
“So let’s get this straight – based on the recommendation of doctors Fauci and Birx the US shut down the entire economy based on 9,000 American deaths due entirely to the China coronavirus?” said the article.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany justified Trump’s retweet as purely informative in her Monday press briefing.
“He was highlighting new CDC information that came out that was worth noting,” she said, without acknowledging a question if he was attempting to downplay the country’s death toll.
A representative for the agency did not immediately respond to questions about Trump’s retweet.
“Co-morbidities” reported by the CDC include heart disease, obesity, diabetes and hypertension – conditions that can make a person more vulnerable to the virus. Each would be listed on a person’s death certificate, along with covid-19. Death certificates may also list sepsis, respiratory arrest, kidney failure or other conditions as the immediate cause of death, but those are caused by the infection. The virus remains the reason that they died, said Nasia Safdar, an infectious disease professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“We know that most people with covid have some other underlying condition which increases their risk of dying from covid and getting covid in the first place,” she said.
At least 180,000 people have died of the coronavirus in the United States, according to Washington Post tracking. Most experts, including the nation’s top infectious disease expert, believe deaths are being undercounted rather than overcounted.
The CDC update provides a compilation of data on co-morbidities, showing what other conditions are present in people who die of the coronavirus and helping reveal who might be most at risk. But it isn’t a departure from what the health agency or public health experts have said in the past. The CDC has said for months that people with underlying health issues are at greater risk of developing serious symptoms from the coronavirus.
“When you see that “only 6%” of people had COVID-19 as the sole reason listed on their death forms, what it means is that there were only a small fraction of people who died of the disease who didn’t have any other underlying or immediate causes noted by the medical certifiers,” Australian epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz wrote in a post on Medium. “This is completely unsurprising, as it’s pretty rare that someone wouldn’t have at least one issue caused by coronavirus prior to their death, and all it means is that in 94% of cases people who had COVID-19 also developed other issues, or had other problems at the same time.”
Conspiracies and misinformation have been a persistent problem amid the coronavirus pandemic, causing alarm among public health experts. Safdar noted that once a false claim “gets out there, it goes on like wildfire.”
“It seems like almost anything can be twisted to fit a particular message that one wants to deliver,” she said. “Even facts that, on the face of it, seem quite clear and incontrovertible.”