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Fact-checking Joe Biden’s figure on unvaccinated COVID-19 deaths
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• Biden is citing a figure that has been offered publicly on at least two occasions by the director of the CDC, Dr. Rochelle Walensky.
• Walensky cautioned that the data is “preliminary,” is based on only a half dozen or so states, and is now about six weeks old. The CDC has not made public any detailed data or methodology.
• Despite these shortcomings, experts told PolitiFact that they don’t doubt the figure’s accuracy. The figure is also in line with a separate analysis by the Associated Press.
During a CNN town hall, President Joe Biden emphasized the importance of getting vaccinated for the coronavirus.
"We have a pandemic for those who haven’t gotten a vaccination. It’s that basic, that simple," Biden said during the July 21 town hall in Cincinnati, Ohio. "Ten thousand people have recently died; 9,950 of them, thereabouts, are people who hadn’t been vaccinated."
That works out to 99.5% of recent COVID-19 deaths occurring among the unvaccinated population.
This statistic has been cited frequently by health officials, though its sourcing is a little opaque.
When we asked the White House for a database or peer-reviewed paper to support the statistic, they did not provide one. Instead, they pointed us to comments made at the White House by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
During a July 1 White House press briefing, Walensky said the country has made "incredible progress towards ending the pandemic" but added that it’s "clear that communities where people remain unvaccinated are communities that remain vulnerable. This is all true as we monitor the continued spread of the hyper-transmissible delta variant."
The delta variant is able to spread faster than previous strains of the novel coronavirus, and now accounts for more than four of every five new infections in the United States.
Specifically, Walensky said, "preliminary data from a collection of states over the last six months suggest 99.5% of deaths from COVID-19 in these states have occurred in unvaccinated people."
Walensky repeated that figure during congressional testimony on July 20, suggesting it was still the most recent CDC data available on this question.
During a hearing, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., asked Walensky for data on the percentage of deaths involving people who were not vaccinated. She responded, "In a five-month study from January to May in numerous states, five to six states, it was 99.5%."
Then, during the July 22 White House briefing, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy repeated the 99.5% figure.
Journalists at the Associated Press conducted an analysis of raw data from the CDC to answer the same question. The analysis, published on June 29, found that 150 of the more than 18,000 deaths in May were in fully vaccinated people. That’s about 0.8%, which is very close to the figure Walensky cited.
The AP analysis also found that hospitalizations among fully vaccinated people accounted for fewer than 1,200 of more than 107,000 total hospitalizations for the coronavirus, or about 1.1%. Both data points suggested that increased vaccination rates would cut down the total number of hospitalizations and deaths.
The CDC did not respond to our inquiry for a database or other evidence in support of the 99.5% figure.
That said, medical experts told us that they have a high degree of confidence in Walensky’s statements.
"This sounds true," said Dr. Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco. "The CDC is able to track deaths quite closely based on hospital records and coding."
Dr. Babak Javid, another professor of medicine at UCSF, agreed. "I haven't seen any peer-reviewed, or even pre-print, data to support this statement, but I would be surprised if it was made up," he said.
Even from Walensky’s limited description, however, we do know that the data has limitations. Walensky said it is "preliminary," said it included only a half dozen or so states, and added that it runs through May, which makes it about six weeks old.
Looking ahead, Javid said that the percentage of deaths occurring in the unvaccinated population may not stay at 99.5% or thereabouts indefinitely, just based on mathematics.
"I expect pretty much everyone who isn't fully vaccinated to be infected by delta, or whatever variant supplants it around the corner, in the next year or two, but large numbers of the fully vaccinated will also be infected," he said. "These infections will skew milder, but in the elderly and vulnerable, that doesn't guarantee that 100% of cases won't be serious."
Biden said, "Ten thousand people have recently died. 9,950 of them, thereabouts, are people who hadn’t been vaccinated."
Biden is citing a figure that has been offered publicly on at least two occasions by the director of the CDC, Walensky. She cautioned that the data it is "preliminary," is based on only a half dozen or so states, and is now about six weeks old. The CDC has not made public any detailed data or methodology.
That said, experts told PolitiFact that they don’t doubt the figure’s accuracy. The figure is also in line with a separate analysis by journalists at the Associated Press.
The statement is accurate but needs additional context, so we rate the statement Mostly True.
Joe Biden, CNN town hall in Cincinnati July 21, 2021
White House, press briefing, July 1, 2021
White House, press briefing, July 22, 2021
Rochelle Walensky, Senate testimony, July 20, 2021
Associated Press, "Nearly all COVID deaths in US are now among unvaccinated," June 29, 2021
Business Insider, "99.5% of COVID-19 deaths in the US are now in unvaccinated people, CDC head says," July 9, 2021
New York Times, "The Delta variant makes up an estimated 83 percent of U.S. cases, the C.D.C. director says," July 20, 2021
Email interview with Babak Javid, professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco, July 22, 2021
Email interview with Monica Gandhi, professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco, July 22, 2021
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Fact-checking Joe Biden’s figure on unvaccinated COVID-19 deaths
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