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‘It’s just not surprising,’ Epidemiology expert expects most COVID-19 deaths to have underlying causes

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MADISON, Wis. (WKOW) -- Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show 94 percent of COVID-19 deaths had at least one other underlying condition listed on the death certificate.

While some have theorized this is evidence of officials over-hyping the virus, UW-Madison Population Health Sciences Professor Ajay Sethi says it actually backs up what epidemiologists have been saying since March.

"The fact 94 percent of deaths were among people who had at least two, maybe even three of these other underlying conditions, just isn't surprising," Sethi said. "It's exactly what we've known for a while."

Sethi said the data essentially confirm people with high-risk underlying conditions are dramatically more likely to develop a severe case of COVID-19 infection. The CDC lists the following conditions as ones that put people at higher risk for severe COVID-19 illness:

  • COPD
  • Heart Disease
  • Kidney Disease
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity

The CDC report estimates 40.7 percent of Americans 18 years and older have at least one of those conditions.

"We have over 200 million adults in the United States and so 40 percent of that is gonna be 80 million people in the United States who are at risk for severe COVID if they were to get this virus," Sethi said.

Among the most common underlying conditions in COVID-19 deaths are influenza and pneumonia, along with respiratory failure. Hypertension disease and diabetes were also connected to more than 20,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S.

"The main route of entry is gonna be through inhaling the virus, it gets into the lungs," Sethi said. "If your lungs are not particularly healthy to begin with, you might end up with a worse course of COVID infection than otherwise."

Sethi added it's very rare for any person who dies of a disease to just have that one illness listed on their death certificate.

"Our human bodies are very complicated and there are often a lot of things that are going on when somebody is near the end of life," Sethi said. "So to have multiple conditions, it's just not surprising."

Sethi said, ultimately, people should begin with a single question when wondering how much COVID-19 contributed to a person's death. Often times, underlying conditions like COPD, diabetes, or obesity would not cause someone's death for years, if at all.

"If they didn't have COVID, would they have died? And I think the answer would be no," Sethi said. "Maybe a very small percentage were on the verge of death already but they were alive at that point when they became infected and death was certainly premature."

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