CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky (Official photo)
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky (Official photo)

SciCheck Digest

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, discussed a recent study that found that on the rare occasion when fully vaccinated people died from COVID-19, they often had multiple risk factors for severe disease. But her reference to vaccinated people was cut in a version of the interview — and conservative figures misleadingly claimed she was talking about all COVID-19 deaths.

Full Story

A government study first posted Jan. 6 found that severe illness or death from COVID-19 was rare among those who were fully vaccinated. The study also found that, of those who did die of COVID-19 after being fully vaccinated, 78% had four or more risk factors for severe COVID-19.

The next day, ABC’s “Good Morning America” included a segment at the top of its show highlighting the study’s findings. In that segment, correspondent Matt Gutman reported, “We’ve long known how effective vaccines are, but this new study lends hard numbers to that understanding, basically showing that, if you are vaccinated, you are more likely to be hit by lightning than to die of COVID.”

Indeed, according to the National Weather Service, the odds of a person in the U.S. being struck by lighting in a lifetime are about one in 15,000. And, among the 1.2 million people included in the study, a fully vaccinated person’s odds of dying from COVID-19 were about 1 in 30,000. Of course, as the study found, those odds aren’t universal. Those who are older or have underlying conditions, or what are sometimes called comorbidities, are more at risk than those who don’t.

The study came up again later in the show when the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, appeared as a guest to discuss the pandemic. This was host Cecilia Vega’s final question to her: “I want to ask you about those encouraging headlines that we were 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’s full answer was (emphasis ours):

Walensky, Jan. 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 0.003% of those people. The overwhelming number of deaths, over 75%, occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities. So, really, these were 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.

But “Good Morning America” aired a version of Walensky’s answer that had been “edited for time,” according to a disclosure at the end of a clip showing the CDC director’s full answer posted on the show’s website.

The beginning of her answer was cut and the network aired only the section in bold.

That was on Friday, Jan. 7. By the following Monday, major right-wing figures had highlighted the shortened clip, suggesting that Walensky was talking about all COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began in 2020 and that the CDC had hidden this information to further a partisan agenda. Many used the clip to perpetuate a false claim that’s been around for almost as long as the pandemic itself — that public health agencies have inflated the COVID-19 death toll to maintain power and usher in political allies. We’ve written about at least six such claims since April 2020.

For example, a Twitter account managed by the Republican National Committee featured the clip, and Donald Trump Jr. tweeted about it three times that Monday, Jan. 10, saying in one post, “Dems/Media capitalized to move their narrative. Now trying to unwind to save Joe/Dems who has failed at doing anything.” Neither one has updated their feed to correct the information.

On Monday evening, Fox News host Tucker Carlson played the clip of Walensky’s truncated answer, saying, “with Trump safely out of office, the CDC is publicly acknowledging — yeah, they lied.”

But that’s not true.

First of all, as we said, Walensky was talking about a study of those who were fully vaccinated. She wasn’t revealing any new information about deaths from COVID-19 altogether.

Second, the CDC has long told the public that those with certain preexisting health conditions are at the highest risk for severe outcomes from the disease. That’s nothing new.

A week after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic in March 2020, the CDC published a report that early data from China suggested a majority of COVID-19 deaths occurred among those over 60 and among those who had serious underlying conditions. It published similar findings the following month, too.

And the CDC continues to inform the public on its website about the risks for severe illness from COVID-19 for those with underlying conditions, including the fact that more than 81% of deaths have occurred in those over 65.

So, even if Walensky had been talking about COVID-19 deaths, generally, it wouldn’t have been new information that a large portion of those deaths were among those who were older or had other conditions.

Bad COVID-19 outcomes, however, don’t occur only in older people or those with other medical conditions. Healthy people of any age can get seriously ill and die, but vaccination reduces those risks. Data from the CDC, for example, shows that in November 2021, COVID-19-associated hospitalizations were 10 times higher in unvaccinated teens ages 12 through 17, 17 times higher in unvaccinated adults ages 18 through 49, and 16 times higher in those aged 50 through 64 years of age, compared with the fully vaccinated. Early evidence also suggests vaccination cuts the chances that a person infected with the coronavirus will develop so-called long COVID.

What the Study Found

Walensky was talking about a study conducted by scientists from the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the CDC that included 1.2 million adults who were fully vaccinated (although not necessarily boosted) and got their shots between December 2020 and October 2021.

To put the study’s scale in context, more than 209 million people have been fully vaccinated in the U.S., so far.

The data for those covered in the study came from 465 hospitals and health care systems across the country.

Of the 1.2 million vaccinated people, 2,246 contracted COVID-19. Of those, 189 had a severe outcome. And, of those, 36 died.

Everyone who had a severe outcome had at least one of eight risk factors, which were: being 65 or older, having a suppressed immune system, having diabetes, or having chronic kidney, cardiac, pulmonary, neurologic or liver disease.

And, as the severity of the disease increased, so did the likelihood that the patient had at least four of those risk factors.

For the most severe outcome — death — 28 patients, or 78%, had at least four.

That’s the figure that Walensky referenced.

Editor’s note: SciCheck’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project is made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation has no control over FactCheck.org’s editorial decisions, and the views expressed in our articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. The goal of the project is to increase exposure to accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccines, while decreasing the impact of misinformation.

Sources

Yek, Christina, et al. “Risk Factors for Severe COVID-19 Outcomes Among Persons Aged ≥18 Years Who Completed a Primary COVID-19 Vaccination Series — 465 Health Care Facilities, United States, December 2020–October 2021.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 7 Jan 2022.

Good Morning America. S12E7. ABC News. 7 Jan 2022.

National Weather Service. How Dangerous is Lightning? Accessed 14 Jan 2022.

Good Morning America. “CDC director responds to criticisms on COVID-19 guidance.” ABC News. 10 Jan 2022.

RNC Research (@RNCresearch). “Biden’s CDC Director: “The overwhelming number of death, over 75%, occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities.” Twitter. 10 Jan 2022.

Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr). “They knew this in 2020. Mds I know told me things like “we had a guy hit by a bus marked as a COVID death because he also had COVID, but I can’t say anything” Dems/Media capitalized to move their narrative. Now trying to unwind to save Joe/Dems who has failed at doing anything.” Twitter. 10 Jan 2022.

Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr). “75% of ‘Covid Deaths’ were in people with at least 4 comorbidities according to the CDC. That’s it. That’s the tweet.” Twitter. 10 Jan 2022.

Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr). “CDC Dir. says over 75% of covid deaths were people with ‘at least 4 comorbidities’ & were ‘unwell to begin with’ How many had 2/3 things that would likely kill them or were in late stage terminal cancer, or were hit by a bus? Whats the # of truly healthy?” Twitter. 10 Jan 2022.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Severe Outcomes Among Patients with Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) — United States, February 12–March 16, 2020.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 18 Mar 2020.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Preliminary Estimates of the Prevalence of Selected Underlying Health Conditions Among Patients with Coronavirus Disease 2019 — United States, February 12–March 28, 2020.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 3 Apr 2020.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Coronavirus Disease 2019 in Children — United States, February 12–April 2, 2020.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 10 Apr 2020.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People with Certain Medical Conditions. CDC.gov. Updated 14 Dec 2021.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Underlying Medical Conditions Associated with Higher Risk for Severe COVID-19: Information for Healthcare Providers. CDC.gov. Updated 14 Oct 2021.

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