CORONAVIRUS

What role do comorbidities and existing medical conditions play in COVID-19 deaths?

An unworn mask is left in the parking lot of the Oakland Road Hy-Vee in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. Hy-Vee i
An unworn mask is left in the parking lot of the Oakland Road Hy-Vee in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. Hy-Vee is not currently requiring customers to wear masks while shopping, but masks were offered as customers entered. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

The Gazette asked readers what questions they have about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, and a handful of questions we received were related to the number of cases linked to comorbidities, sometimes called preexisting conditions.

In an effort to better understand the novel coronavirus and the impact it has on patients’ health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been collecting data on COVID-19 in the United States, including how many have died as a result of the virus.

But new information released by the CDC late last month was taken out of context, fueling misinformation online and spreading speculation that the virus is not as deadly as scientists say.

Many pointed to a report from the CDC that showed 94 percent of coronavirus-related death also had a contributing comorbidity. So is it true that people who die as a result of COVID-19 have an underlying medical condition that contributed to their death?

That statement is missing some key context, which we’ll attempt to break down.

The term comorbidities refers to two or more chronic diseases or conditions in a patient. In the context of COVID-19, a comorbidity would be a preexisting condition — such as diabetes or cancer — that the patient is dealing with when they contract the virus.

According to the CDC report that is updated weekly and outlines provisional death counts for COVID-19, it states that for 6% of deaths, “COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned” on the death certificate.

“For deaths with conditions or causes in addition to COVID-19, on average, there were 2.6 additional conditions or causes per death,” the report continued.

PolitiFact investigated the claim, and experts told the fact-checking site that just because 94 percent of individuals had a comorbidity, doesn’t mean they didn’t die because of COVID-19.

In the article, PolitiFact quoted Jeff Lancashire, acting associate director for communications at the

National Center for Health Statistics, as saying that while 94 percent of death certificates that mention COVID-19 also listed other conditions, the underlying cause of death was COVID-19 in almost all of them.

“The underlying cause of death is the condition that began the chain of events that ultimately led to the person’s death,” he told PolitiFact. “In 92 percent of all deaths that mention COVID-19, COVID-19 is listed as the underlying cause of death.”

But that doesn’t mean comorbidities play a key part in a person’s outcome while they fight off an infection of the novel coronavirus.

A recent CDC report shows of COVID-19 cases between Jan. 22 and May 30, those infected individuals with an underlying medical conditions were hospitalized six times as often and died 12 times as often as otherwise healthy people.

And it should be noted certain comorbidities, including obesity, diabetes and heart disease, are very common in the United States.

Minority groups — which are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic — often have high rates of chronic health conditions. Black populations in metropolitan areas, for example, have higher rates of diabetes and heart disease because they often lack access to adequate health care.

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In Iowa as of Saturday, 1,264 COVID-19 deaths have been reported in the state, with 868 of them among people with preexisting conditions, 86 in people with no preexisting conditions and 310 unknown.

Comments: (319) 398-8469; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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