COVID-19 was the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2020. But a meme featuring Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis minimizes the toll the pandemic already has taken — particularly among the elderly. The meme also questions getting inoculated, despite the safety record of the vaccines and DeSantis’ public support for vaccines.
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How lethal is COVID-19?
It’s difficult to know exactly how deadly COVID-19 is, but as the World Health Organization has written, studies estimate that the infection fatality ratio, or percentage of deaths out of all infections, is between 0.5% and 1%. The true rate isn’t clear, since the pandemic is ongoing and not all infections have been diagnosed.
The case fatality rate, or percentage of deaths out of confirmed cases, was 1.8% in the United States as of March 31.
An individual’s risk of death may be significantly higher or lower than what these numbers suggest, depending on a person’s age or health conditions. For example, the CDC estimates that the risk of death is more than 600 times higher for someone 85 years and older as compared with someone between the ages of 18 and 29.
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How do we know vaccines are safe?
No vaccine or medical product is 100% safe, but large randomized controlled trials, involving tens of thousands of people and reviewed by multiple groups of experts, revealed no serious safety concerns and showed that the benefits outweigh the risks.
As with any vaccine, safety is also being monitored as the shots are rolled out to members of the public to ensure there are no side effects of concern. A very small number of severe allergic reactions, for example — which are expected with any vaccine — have occurred with some of the authorized COVID-19 vaccines. The CDC said the reaction – anaphylaxis – occurred in 2 to 5 people per million vaccinated. This reaction “almost always occurs” within a half hour of receiving a shot, and vaccination providers have medicine to immediately treat it, the CDC said.
Also, after investigating 15 cases of a rare clotting condition out of nearly 8 million Johnson & Johnson vaccinations, the CDC and Food and Drug Administration are warning of a suggested increased risk of the conditions, which occurred in women and resulted in three deaths as of April 21. The CDC said “women younger than 50 years old especially should be aware of the rare risk of blood clots with low platelets after vaccination, and that other COVID-19 vaccines are available where this risk has not been seen.” For more, see “Q&A on the Rare Clotting Events That Caused the J&J Pause.”
For the COVID-19 vaccines, the CDC and FDA vaccine monitoring systems include a new smartphone-based tool called v-safe that allows enrollees to report any reactions to the vaccine.
Some politicians and pundits have downplayed the severity of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. One such example has sprung up again, this time with an additional message aimed at spreading fear about the vaccines.
An Instagram account promoting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as former President Donald Trump’s running mate in 2024, if Trump seeks office again, has shared a photo of DeSantis from September. In it, the governor is holding a sign that shows “COVID-19 Survival Rates” by age group, which range from 99.997% for those under 20 to 94.6% for those over 70.
The new version altered the original image by adding text that says, “Do you really need that dangerous vaccine?” But that message isn’t from DeSantis, who has been vaccinated and has encouraged others to get vaccinated.
Both of those messages, though — highlighting the survival rates and questioning the safety of the vaccines — are misleading.
Misleading Comparison Minimizes Risk
We’ll start with the original claim about the high survival rates for COVID-19.
DeSantis used the sign at a September press conference during which he announced that he would lift restrictions meant to curb the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.
The sign read:
COVID-19 Survival Rates by Age Group
Small print at the bottom of the sign attributed the numbers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the CDC didn’t publish those numbers, Jasmine Reed, an agency spokeswoman, told us in an email.
Instead, the Florida Department of Health used the CDC’s estimated “infection fatality ratio” for those age groups from a Sept. 10 report called “COVID-19 Pandemic Planning Scenarios” to calculate “survival rates.”
It’s not wrong to figure out the survival rate that way, Dr. Julien Riou, a research fellow at the University of Bern in Switzerland, told us in an email. But in this case, the numbers are misleading.
Riou, who worked on the paper that the CDC cited for the estimated infection fatality rates, noted that the survival rate listed for those over 70 doesn’t reflect what the paper found. The survival rate for those between ages 70 and 79 would be about 95%, as the sign says, but the rate for those over 80 would be lower, about 70% to 80%, he said. That distinction wasn’t included in the CDC’s report either, though.
More importantly, focusing on the high survival rates minimizes the deadly toll that COVID-19 has already taken.
That’s “unbelievable,” Dr. Sten Vermund, dean of the Yale School of Public Health, told us in a phone interview. “Here’s something that came out of the blue and ranked behind cancer and heart disease.”
While it’s true that the estimated infection fatality rates for COVID-19 are under 1% for most age groups, the disease is widespread, he said. So the actual impact — the total number of deaths — is significant. More than 3 million people worldwide have died of the disease.
“One percent of a few people is small, but 1% of a lot of people is large,” Vermund said. “That’s what we have here.”
Highlighting strong survival rates, as this meme does, gives people false confidence, he said. It also doesn’t account for cases of long COVID-19, which can cause symptoms to last for months and have severe impacts on patients’ lives.
The bottom line is that both things are true: The percentage of those who die from COVID-19 may appear low, but the raw number of those who have died is high, Vermund said. Focusing only on the relatively low percentage of deaths minimizes the issue.
Safety of COVID-19 Vaccines
We’ll now address the newer claim suggesting that the vaccines are unsafe.
That said, there have been some rare but serious reactions to the vaccines.
A relatively small number of people had serious allergic reactions after getting the three vaccines authorized for use in the U.S. As we’ve written before, some allergic reactions, including a potentially life-threatening reaction known as anaphylaxis, are to be expected with any vaccine. Fortunately, that kind of severe reaction is very rare — about 2 to 5 per million — and “almost always occurs within 30 minutes after vaccination,” the CDC says, so it can be quickly treated.
In April, regulatory agencies recommended a pause in the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine while they investigated reports of a rare but potentially fatal blood-clotting condition among women under 50 years old. The investigation confirmed 15 cases of the rare condition, including three deaths, out of nearly 8 million vaccine doses of the J&J vaccine, as of April 21. The CDC and the Food and Drug Administration recommended resuming use of the shot with a warning of the rare, increased risk, explaining that the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the risks, and that the risk hasn’t been seen with the other authorized vaccines.
The obvious benefit of all these vaccines is that they reduce the rates of hospitalization and death from COVID-19. A recent government analysis in the U.K. estimated that vaccines there had prevented 10,400 deaths for those over 60 years old from December through March. During that time, more than 15 million vaccines were administered.
That works out to 693 deaths prevented per 1 million vaccine doses in the most vulnerable age group.
“We’ve seen the risks of COVID-19 — in individual health and public health,” Jason Schwartz, assistant professor of health policy at the Yale School of Public Health, told us in a phone interview. The risks of the disease, as we described above, are visible and significant. “That’s how we have to think about the risks of the vaccines,” he said, in terms of what they prevent.
“We know that the vaccines currently in use have been tremendously effective in preventing hospitalizations and death,” Schwartz said. “They all but eliminate the outcomes of COVID-19 that have been so catastrophic.”
The most common consequence of the vaccines are sore arms and short-term symptoms, with some very rare cases of allergic reaction or blood clots, he said, comparing that to the prevention of hospitalizations and death from COVID-19 made possible by the vaccines. It’s “literally a different level of magnitude,” Schwartz said.
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 our 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.
Rieder, Rem. “Trump’s Deceptive Comparison of the Coronavirus to the Flu.” FactCheck.org. 9 Sep 2020.
Gambardello, Joseph A. “Doctors in Video Falsely Equate COVID-19 With a ‘Normal Flu Virus’.” FactCheck.org. 21 Oct 2020.
Solomon, Josh and Ana Ceballos. “DeSantis lifts statewide restrictions on bars and restaurants as Florida moves to phase 3.” Tampa Bay Times. 25 Sep 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “COVID-19 Pandemic Planning Scenarios.” Updated 10 Sep 2020.
Hauser, Anthony, et al. “Estimation of SARS-CoV-2 mortality during the early stages of an epidemic: A modeling study in Hubei, China, and six regions in Europe.” PLOS medicine. 28 Jul 2020.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (@CDCgov). “A new @CDCMMWR shows that in 2020, more than 3.3 million deaths occurred in the United States, an 18% increase from 2019. #COVID19 ranked as the 3rd leading cause of death, following heart disease and cancer.” Twitter. 31 Mar 2021.
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