CDC director’s comment on COVID-19 and comorbidities misrepresented
CLAIM: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said in a “Good Morning America” interview that “over 75% of ‘Covid deaths’ occurred in people with at least four comorbidities.”
AP’S ASSESSMENT: Missing context. Walensky was discussing a CDC study that specifically looked at people who are vaccinated against COVID-19, a detail that was removed in some versions circulating online. She was citing the study’s finding that 78% of people who were vaccinated against COVID-19 but died from the disease had four other risk factors.
THE FACTS: Widely shared social media posts are sharing part of Walensky’s Jan. 7 interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” to suggest she said most people who die from COVID-19 have at least four other comorbidities.
“CDC director says over 75% of covid deaths were people with ‘at least four comorbidities’ and were ‘unwell to begin with,’” one tweet liked nearly 20,000 times reads.
But the question that led to the response and a portion of Walensky’s answer were removed from the clip being cited, altering the meaning of what was said. A longer version of the exchange shows she was specifically talking about a study’s finding about the rare vaccinated people who got COVID-19 and died.
During the interview, ABC News’ Cecilia Vega questioned Walensky: “I want to ask you about those encouraging headlines that we’re talking about this morning, this new study showing just how well vaccines are working to prevent severe illness. Given that, is it time to start rethinking how we’re living with this virus, that it’s potentially here to stay?”
Some clips circulating online without the question made it appear Walensky was talking about overall deaths, not those detailed in the study, by only showing part of her response: “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.”
On Monday, “Good Morning America” updated its interview online to feature an “extended version,” which showed Walensky’s full response began with her clearly describing the new CDC study. The show added a note saying a “shorter version edited for time was broadcast on Friday, January 7.”
“You know, really important study if I may just summarize it — a study of 1.2 million people who were vaccinated between December and October and demonstrated that severe disease occurred in about 0.015% of the people who received their primary series and death in .003% of those people,” Walensky 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,” she added. “And yes, really encouraging news in the context of omicron, this means not only to get your primary series but to get your booster series and yes, we’re really encouraged by these results.”
The study was published on Jan. 7 and found that “Severe COVID-19 outcomes after primary vaccination are rare.” Of the 1.2 million vaccinated people in the study, 189 had a severe outcome — 36 of whom died.
“Risk factors for severe outcomes included age ≥65 years, immunosuppressed, and six other underlying conditions,” the report said. “All persons with severe outcomes had at least one risk factor; 78% of persons who died had at least four.”
Separate from the new study Walensky discussed on ABC, CDC data shows that most death certificates citing COVID-19 list several comorbidities or other conditions as contributing to the death. However, those conditions may include complications from COVID-19, not only existing medical conditions, said Bob Anderson, chief of the Mortality Statistics Branch at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.
This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.