Prominent right-wing figures have been falsely describing a comment the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made last week about Covid-19 deaths – taking Dr. Rochelle Walensky out of context to wrongly claim she had delivered a dramatic new admission about the 840,000-plus Americans who have died of the virus.
On Monday, radio and television host Clay Travis, an outspoken commentator about sports, politics and the pandemic, tweeted an 11-second snippet of Walensky speaking on ABC’s “Good Morning America” last Friday. Travis wrote: “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.”
The clip Travis tweeted, which was also shared by numerous others on the right, including some lawmakers, had received more than 4 million views on Twitter as of Wednesday morning. And Fox personalities Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham played a short video snippet of Walensky on their Monday shows.
Not everyone who shared a Walensky snippet explicitly said why they found it significant. In general, though, the footage was depicted as a major CDC concession that only the sickest Americans, people with multiple pre-existing conditions, are at real risk of dying of Covid-19 – or, relatedly, that Covid-19 had been the true cause of fewer deaths than the authorities have reported.
Facts First: Walensky did not say that more than 75% of the people who have died of Covid-19 had four or more comorbidities. “Good Morning America” edited out some of Walensky’s comments; the viral 11-second clip was further shortened from the edited footage. The full footage, which Good Morning America released hours after the controversy erupted on Monday, proves that Walensky was speaking specifically about a small number of deaths that were described in a new federal study. That study found that, of a group of 1.2 million people who were fully vaccinated between December 2020 and October 2021, 36 of them had a death associated with Covid-19 – and that, of these 36 people, 28 of them, or about 78%, had at least four of eight “risk factors” for experiencing a severe outcome from the virus, such as an age of over 65, diabetes and a variety of additional chronic diseases.
In other words: Walensky’s comments were much narrower than many right-wing figures have been claiming. She was explaining that a particular study showed that only a tiny percentage of fully vaccinated people got sick or died, and that, of this small number of people in the study, the vast majority had suffered from multiple pre-existing conditions.
Walensky correctly said at a Senate committee meeting Tuesday that her comments had been taken out of context. And she correctly noted that a relevant chunk of her comments had been cut from her pre-taped interview.
After Travis’s tweet went viral for more than a full day, Twitter decided to stop users from directly sharing the tweet. Twitter also added a “stay informed” notice that linked to fact checks explaining why the tweet was inaccurate. However, users were still permitted to share tweets from other accounts that had previously amplified Travis’s tweet.
The footage was edited
It’s possible that some of the people who wrongly described Walensky’s comments were genuinely confused about what she meant. “Good Morning America” made her message much less clear by editing out some important Walensky sentences.
“Good Morning America” released unedited footage online on Monday. Here is the full exchange Walensky had with ABC News chief White House correspondent Cecilia Vega; we have italicized the portion that was omitted from the televised version.
Vega: 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?
Walensky: 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 were – received 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. And yes, really encouraging news in the context of omicron. This means not only just to get your primary series but to get your booster series. And yes, we’re really encouraged by these results.
“Good Morning America” included a written note at the end of the full footage it released on Monday. The note explained that the version of the interview that aired on television on Friday had been edited “for time” reasons.
Other journalists preceded CNN in debunking the false claims about Walensky’s comments. They include James Surowiecki and a writer for the conservative website HotAir who goes by the pseudonym Allahpundit.
More about the study
The study Walensky was talking about – which was authored by researchers at the CDC and the National Institutes of Health and was released last week in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report – used data from 465 health care facilities.
The study looked at 1,228,664 people who were fully vaccinated (but not necessarily boosted) between December 2020 and October 2021.
Of these roughly 1.2 million vaccinated people, the study found that: 2,246 developed Covid-19; 189 of them had a “severe” outcome, including 36 who died.
Of those 36 people who died, the study found that 28 of them – about 78% – had four or more of the eight “risk factors” the study identified as statistically significant. Those risk factors were being older than 65, diabetes, immunosuppression, chronic kidney disease, chronic liver disease, chronic neurologic disease, chronic cardiac disease and chronic pulmonary disease.
Walensky’s comments on “Good Morning America” were also criticized by people who accused her of devaluing the lives of people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. Walensky – who has sought media training in the wake of a series of communications missteps – responded that she is deeply concerned about the health of people with disabilities. Spokesperson Jason McDonald said in an email that “Dr. Walensky did not intend comments in a recent television appearance to be hurtful toward those with disabilities.”
The CDC’s public statements about causes of death
The CDC has openly said since 2020 that people with various medical conditions are most likely to get seriously ill and die from Covid-19; contrary to Travis’s insinuation, this information has not been hidden.
In fact, the CDC still says this explicitly in various places on its website – explaining that “more than 81% of Covid-19 deaths occur in people over age 65” and that “the risk of severe COVID-19 increases as the number of underlying medical conditions increases in a person.”
When CNN asked Travis for comment on Tuesday, he declined to directly explain his inaccurate description of what Walensky said on “Good Morning America.” Instead, in a direct message and a subsequent public tweet, he claimed vindication because a public CDC database shows that, for the 95% of Covid-19 deaths where the death certificate has listed a condition or cause of death in addition to Covid-19, there were an average of “4.0 additional conditions or causes per death.”
The fact that this public database has been online since 2020, however, contradicts Travis’s claim in his viral tweet and in his message to CNN that the data is “suddenly” being shared to protect Biden politically. The public database also doesn’t prove that a full 75% of people who have died of Covid-19 had four or more comorbidities. An average of four additional conditions or causes of death, among 95% of the people who died, doesn’t mean 75% of all people who died each had four or more – let alone that “95%” each had four or more, as Travis inaccurately said in a tweet criticizing CNN’s inquiry about his initial tweet.
In addition, the fact that someone’s death certificate listed conditions or causes in addition to Covid-19 does not mean that Covid-19 was not responsible for the death. The CDC said in a Tuesday email to CNN: “In 91% of all deaths that mention COVID-19, COVID-19 is listed as the underlying cause of death.” The underlying cause is the condition that began the chain of events that ultimately led to the death.
Finally, it’s important to note that the study Walensky cited uses the phrase “risk factors” to talk about something different than the CDC is talking about when it uses the phrase “conditions or causes” of death.
The study looks at eight “risk factors” that can lead to someone having a severe outcome from Covid-19 – age, immunosuppression, plus six pre-existing conditions. The CDC site, conversely, counts not only pre-existing conditions but conditions listed on death certificates that were actually caused by the deadly case of Covid-19.
For example, as of January 2, the CDC reported more than 322,000 Covid-19 deaths where respiratory failure was also listed on the death certificate. Respiratory failure is known to be caused by Covid-19.
In other words, an American did not have to suffer from an illness before getting Covid-19 for their death certificate to include an additional condition or cause of death. And Dr. Sameer Kadri, a study co-author, critical care doctor and head of clinical epidemiology in the NIH Clinical Center’s critical care department, said in an email that many of the Americans who did suffer from prior illnesses, such as diabetes, “would have lived long fulfilling lives even with their chronic conditions had it not been for COVID-19 that tipped them over the edge.”
The “main points” here, Kadri said, are “that COVID-19 is a horrible disease and that vaccines and boosters are incredibly effective at preventing death and other serious outcomes like needing the ICU.”