President Donald Trump retweeted a conspiracy theory this weekend, falsely claiming that only about 9,000 Americans have "actually" died from COVID-19. The post was considered not only misinformation, but offensive to the loved ones of over 160,000 Americans who have died from the pandemic. Twitter eventually removed the post, citings their terms of service.
The tweet came from a user going by the name of "Mel Q," who was promoting the now-infamous QAnon conspiracy theory. The claim about the low death toll was based on a sentence fragment from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website, which said that "for 6 percent of the deaths, COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned." Conspiracy theorists took this to mean that the other 151,000 victims would have passed away with or without the coronavirus' influence.
In fact, many of the remaining 94 percent of deaths were attributed to more specific symptoms and conditions caused by COVID-19, according to a report by The Hill. For example, some of those people had causes like "respiratory failure" on their death certificate, but that respiratory failure was caused by the coronavirus.
"When you see that 'only 6 percent' 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," wrote epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz in a blog post about this disinformation. "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."
Trump retweeted another post about this incorrect "6 percent" statistic, originally from his own campaign's senior legal adviser Jenna Ellis. That tweet has not yet been removed by Twitter.
While Trump tries to downplay the coronavirus pandemic and put it in the past tense ahead of the 2020 presidential election, some scientists are now estimating the death toll may be even higher than the CDC's data suggests. Johns Hopkins University currently lists over 183,000 deaths in the U.S. from the pandemic, and another analysis published by The New York Times last month suggested that there were at least 200,000 deaths to account for.
The coronavirus pandemic continues, with the number of new cases and deaths still rising in some states. Public health experts continue to urge social distancing as the most important factor in slowing the spread of the virus until a vaccine is available.