The unsupported claims that Australians “are not being told the facts” around COVID-related deaths have been debunked by health experts.
A new talking point from virus sceptics that claims people are “dying with COVID but not of it” has been labelled as misleading, after coronavirus death data was cherry-picked from epidemiological reports.
The claim, spread in Australia by media host Alan Jones and former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, has been shot down by doctors.
Sorry I simply do not believe the figures being quoted of those senior citizens dying because of COVID 19.
I am sure many are "dying with COVID but not of it"
— Jeff Kennett (@jeff_kennett) September 4, 2020
The “dying with COVID but not of it” claim first surfaced in the United States, as sceptics sought to downplay risks.
It began to pick up steam after the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) posted an update on American coronavirus deaths on August 26, reporting “For 6 per cent of the deaths, COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned.”
That is, for 94 per cent of deaths, factors other than COVID – like chronic disease or other serious health conditions – were also linked.
Many virus sceptics jumped on this, falsely claiming death figures were being inflated or otherwise presented incorrectly.
Multiple social media posts claiming the CDC had “quietly updated” the statistics went viral, with the phrase “only 6%” trending on Twitter in the US.
However, this trend is in line with health advice provided by experts worldwide – who warned people with comorbidities like chronic disease are at higher risk of death from COVID, as the virus can exacerbate conditions or hit harder against people with weakened immune systems.
The misrepresented statistics have been shared in the US since late August, but the claim has now made its way to Australia.
“We are not being told the truth,” Mr Jones claimed in his Sky News program on Monday night, as he discussed the CDC statistics.
Mr Jones also quoted figures from a similar Australian report compiled by the federal Department of Health, which said that of COVID cases admitted to Australian hospitals, “only 9 per cent recorded no comorbidity”.
The Sky News host read out stats that 78 per cent of hospital admissions recorded “at least one of the specified comorbidities”.
The comorbidities mentioned are not all fatal conditions and include asthma and diabetes – conditions that many Australians have for years or decades.
Mr Jones, who featured One Nation’s NSW leader Mark Latham during the segment but not an epidemiologist or health expert, claimed “We are being lied to”.
Mr Kennett, the former Liberal leader who has consistently criticised Labor Premier Daniel Andrews’ handling of the outbreak in Victoria, also claimed on Twitter “I simply do not believe the figures” and repeated the “dying with COVID but not of it” line.
However, federal deputy chief medical officer Dr Nick Coatsworth said it was not surprising that many people affected by COVID had comorbidities.
In fact, it is a big reason why health officials are taking the virus so seriously, due to its increased dangers for people with underlying health conditions.
“There’s been a lot of discussion about how we classify COVID-related deaths,” he told The New Daily at a press conference on Tuesday.
“It’s not always an easy thing when someone who has, say influenza, dies of a heart attack and then trying to decide which one to put when you know the influenza probably had something to do with the heart attack.”
Dr Coatsworth said protecting those with comorbidities from the virus was important, and stressed people shouldn’t underestimate its impact on the sick.
“I don’t, by any stretch of the imagination, think it’s reason to underplay the severe impact COVID has on people with comorbid conditions,” he said.
“That is the problem with COVID. As soon as you start having one, two, three or more other health conditions, your likelihood of having a fatal outcome, with or from COVID, is increased. That’s why we have to take these control measures.”
Professor Chris Burrell, head of the Infectious Diseases Laboratories at the University of Adelaide, said COVID could be a “trigger” for death – killing someone with an underlying condition, which they could have lived with for many years to come if not for the virus.
“There’s great variation from person to person over what led to the death, but the most common scenario is an older person has some slowly progressing but stable chronic condition like heart disease or being immunosuppressed,” he told The New Daily.
“They may die next year or the year after, it’s a slow thing. But the coronavirus is a trigger that bumps them off straight away.”
Professor Burrell said the virus could accelerate someone’s death, making them succumb to their underlying condition far faster than they otherwise would have.
“The coronavirus time scale is quite short, whereas the time scale of cardiovascular disease or respiratory issues are a much slower time scale,” he said.
“The health condition makes them more vulnerable, but it’s the immediate trigger of the virus is the thing that pops them off.
“They’re dying with both conditions, and both conditions are contributing. But if they didn’t get the virus, they might live for many more years.”