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Experts say that it’s too soon to calculate a case fatality rate in an ongoing pandemic, and it takes time and revisited data to get a complete number.
The level of risk from COVID-19 varies because of many factors, including a person’s age, health status and where they live.
A TikTok user broke out a pen, a sheet of paper and her cell phone camera to show the math she used to find the chances of someone dying from COVID-19. But experts said her method is not the right way to assess this risk.
In the July 26 video, a woman named Brittany Gresh divided the global total for COVID-19 cases (193 million at the time) by the world population (7.8 billion) to get "your chance at getting COVID" — 2.4%. She then divided COVID-19 deaths (4.1 at the time) by 193 million, to get 2.1%.
To get the total chance of dying if you got COVID-19, she multiplied both percentages to get "0.0005, or 0.05% chance of dying from COVID."
"This is what they want you to be afraid of," she concluded.
Health experts said that Gresh’s math is an oversimplification and lacks context.
Dr. Josh Michaud, associate director for Global Health Policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, explained that part of what Gresh calculated is called the case fatality rate, which is the number of deaths divided by the number of reported cases. But Michaud said that at this stage, such an estimate is based on numbers that are underreported and incomplete.
"You can use different methods to try and estimate what the true percent of people infected is, but it is just an estimate and a guess. All of these numbers have to be taken with a big grain of salt," Michaud said.
Dr. Katrine Wallace, epidemiologist and adjunct assistant professor of epidemiology at University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, also told PolitiFact that it’s difficult to ascertain a case fatality rate during an ongoing pandemic, when numbers keep changing.
Organizations such as the World Health Organization, Johns Hopkins University, and Kaiser Family Foundation each keep a daily tab on the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths around the world. When the TikTok video published on July 26, their metrics showed that cumulative cases were around 193 million, which is in line with the number Gresh used. But by the morning of Aug. 11, the total number of reported cases worldwide had grown to around 204 million.
Deaths from COVID-19 are also underreported. The WHO found that in 2020, 1.8 million deaths were reported, but the organization estimates the true number of losses last year was nearly double — 3.3 million. "Many countries still lack functioning civil registration and vital statistics systems with the capacity to provide accurate, complete and timely data on births, deaths and causes of death," information on WHO’s website says.
"It took us two years to get a case fatality rate from that epidemic," she said, "and a lot of it was based on following up on cases that ended up passing away from long term complications and following up on cases that were suspected cases that nobody coded correctly at the beginning of that pandemic."
Wallace told PolitiFact that the "0.05% chance" ignores the different types of risks that individuals across the world face, including a person’s age, health status or how widespread COVID-19 is in their community. For example, Wallace said, a person who lives in Florida, where reported cases have topped 2.7 million, is at a higher risk than someone who lives in Vermont, a state whose population is 34 times smaller and where the per capita case rate is about a third of what Florida has experienced. Florida’s positive case rate was reported to be 12,892 per 100,000 people, as of Aug. 9 compared to Vermont’s 4,058 cases per 100,000.
On a larger comparable scale, the country of Greenland, where the population is 56,225 people, has only reported 182 cases during the pandemic. That pales in comparison to what a person might encounter in the United States, which has amassed nearly 36 million cases among its more than 328 million people.
"Risk is not uniform across the world," Wallace said. "So she’s doing this calculation like this is your risk of dying globally, and the reason you don’t see that statistic is because it really isn’t applicable to anybody."
Dr. Emily Smith, epidemiologist and assistant professor at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, said that using the global population and the reported number of 193 million cases to calculate the chance of getting COVID-19 only encompasses the number of people who have had the disease — not the number of people who could still get it. Anyone who hasn’t already had COVID-19 or who hasn’t been vaccinated yet is at risk, she said.
"The reason this has caused (a) global pandemic is because everyone has the chance to get COVID," Smith said. "No one has pre-existing immunity. We’ve never heard of anyone that’s immune. Everyone’s chance at baseline is essentially 100%."
It can’t be predicted who will get very sick or who will die, Smith said, noting that both people with or without pre-existing conditions are at risk.
Almost 80% of people who died from COVID-19 were older than 65, according to the CDC. But in recent months, as more older people are vaccinated and the delta variant spreads, they state that younger people aged 18-49 are now the biggest increase of hospitalized patients.
"(There’s) lots of cases of perfectly healthy or young people who also get very sick or who also die," she said. "So, probability, numbers and math are good for thinking about population health, but they’re not so good for thinking about your individual risk."
Smith said the number of reported COVID-19 cases will always be an undercount, because not everyone gets tested for COVID-19. Many people catch the virus and never show symptoms, or only show mild symptoms, and don’t know they are infected with the virus.
Wallace agreed: "Any rates that we see in the real world data about testing, we know are undercounted."
PolitiFact reached out to Gresh for comment. She stuck by her claim, stating that she used the numbers available at that time which "are not incorrect nor misinformative."
"I did not say nor did I insinuate the global percentage related to individual chance," she wrote. "In fact, I repeatedly made the statement the math reflected (accurately) the chances of being ‘a person on this earth catching and then also dying from COVID.’"
A TikTok video said the chances of dying from COVID-19 are 0.05%.
The percentages used in the video don't account for the varying factors of risk that individuals face around the world, such as their age, where they live and comorbidities.
In addition, both experts and data show that the number of people in the world who have not yet been infected or vaccinated are still at risk of catching the virus and they aren’t included in the count. Mildly symptomatic or asymptomatic people who don’t get tested are being left out as well. It’s too early to accurately calculate a case fatality rate for a pandemic that is ongoing.
We rate this claim False.
TikTok video, July 26, 2021
Florida Department of Health COVID-19 Weekly Situation Report: State Overview, week of July 30-Aug. 5
World Health Organization, Greenland COVID statistics, accessed August 10, 2021.
World Health Organization, United States COVID statistics, accessed August 10, 2021.
World Health Organization Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard, accessed August 6, 2021
Kaiser Family Foundation COVID-19 Coronavirus Tracker, accessed August 6, 2021
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center COVID-19 Map, accessed August 6, 2021
World Health Organization, The true death toll of COVID-19, Aug. 21, 2021
Statista, Rate of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in the United States as of August 9, 2021, by state, accessed Aug. 12, 2021
CDC COVID-NET, A Weekly Summary of U.S. COVID-19 Hospitalization Data, accessed Aug. 12, 2021
CDC, COVID-19 Mortality Overview, accessed Aug. 12, 2021
Phone interview with Dr. Emily Smith, epidemiologist and assistant professor at The George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, August 6, 2021
Phone interview with Josh Michaud, associate director for Global Health Policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, August 6, 2021
Phone interview with Dr. Katrine Wallace, epidemiologist and adjunct assistant professor of epidemiology at University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, August 10, 2021
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