Journalists in the corporate media have a case of the vapors over the CDC life expectancy projections. Geraldo Rivera is freaking out and saying the data is evidence of “white privilege,” partly because he can’t read the CDC’s chart and partly because he doesn’t know how to interpret the data.
It is not clear what he is talking about. According to the CDC report, as of the end of 2020, a Hispanic child born today has a life expectancy of 78.8 years. A non-Hispanic white baby has a life expectancy of 77.6 years. The life expectancy of a female Hispanic baby is the highest for all groups at 82.4 years. Non-Hispanic black life expectancy is the lowest across all groups for men and women for a child born today, with the lowest being black males.
One contributing factor in this may be the high death rates by homicide among young black males ages 15-24, which has nothing to do with COVID-19. Rates of homicide have increased since the end of 2019. This trend is something all Americans should be interested in reversing. It will require the complex analysis necessary to get to legitimate root causes that have nothing to do with “white privilege.” Next, Rivera runs into his own mortality. And again, he is wrong:
IN 2015 AVERAGE LIFE EXPECTANCY Was 78.7 years.
IN 2020 Average life expectancy was 77.3 Years
I’m already living on borrowed time.
— Geraldo Rivera (@GeraldoRivera) July 22, 2021
According to public information, Rivera is 78 years old. The life expectancy chart is in five-year increments, which means he can expect to live somewhere between 9.3 and 11.8 more years. A 78-year-old non-Hispanic white man can expect to live between 8.2 and 10.9 more years on average despite COVID-19. Someone may want to tell him you read these charts according to your current age, not from year zero.
Yes, according to the report, the average life expectancy for a child born today has declined. However, the CDC assertion that COVID-19 makes up nearly three-quarters of the decline doesn’t pass the sniff test. First, by the time a child born today reaches adulthood, COVID-19 is likely to be a common cold for them. They will get exposed as children, suffer a mild case, and their immune system will handle it fine as they age. So, if it is contributing to the decline overall, it should correct itself in subsequent reports. If it does not, the assertion was incorrect.
And as my engineer father used to say, “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” And as my statistics professor told his students, “Garbage in, garbage out.” These statements emphasize the responsibility to check your assumptions, inputs, and work before you declare a final product. This advice is certainly accurate when publishing data about people’s health for an entire country amid a pandemic.
The biggest problem with this CDC data is the inputs. Several reports lead us to believe that COVID-19 is not the cause of death for a significant number of those counted in the statistics. In other cases, it is a contributing factor in a slightly earlier death than may have occurred otherwise in those with significant and fatal comorbidities.
First, Santa Clara and Alameda Counties in California reviewed every COVID-19 death. They found that examining the reason for admission and the clinical path reduced the number of deaths “from” COVID-19 by 25% on average. A similar review in Minnesota earlier in the pandemic found an overcount of 40%. Even the CDC knows this is a problem, as they are conscientious about delineating between deaths “with” and “from” COVID-19. As of July 12, they reduce the total number of fatalities with a positive COVID-19 test post-vaccination by 26% when making this distinction.
Excluding the Minnesota review because it was done earlier in the pandemic with other confounding factors like hospital reimbursement, it appears safe to assume that around 25% of people who test positive for COVID-19 in mandatory hospital testing are there for entirely different fatal illnesses. Back of the napkin math: That would reduce deaths in the U.S. “from” COVID-19 from approximately 610,000 to around 460,000. This reduction would cause a material change in the CDC analysis that COVID-19 is responsible for nearly 75% of the decrease in life expectancy.
Next, a study in New Jersey of three large hospitals found that 89% of the patients who died “of” COVID-19 had a do-not-resuscitate order in place before contracting COVID-19 and being admitted to the hospital. That designation means they had a terminal illness that would result in an inferior quality of life if medical personnel took extraordinary life-saving measures.
For these patients, COVID-19 acted as pneumonia often does in the terminally ill and frail. It becomes the final straw for an exhausted body. Traditionally, these deaths would have been attributed to the primary diagnosis, not the respiratory illness when the death was recorded. For reasons of reimbursement and other motivations, this has not been the case during COVID-19. Catching a respiratory virus may shorten the life of a terminally ill patient by several months.
Provisional death data from the CDC supports the thesis that many who died with COVID-19 would have died in the following six to twelve months. Deaths from chronic lower respiratory disease, ischemic cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and other dementia, and diabetes are declining and falling below the 2015-2019 average. These conditions were common comorbidities with COVID-19. An analysis from Dr. Marty Makary and his team at Johns Hopkins found that no child under 18 died with COVID-19 in the absence of a severe medical diagnosis like leukemia.
Finally, the median age of a COVID-19 death was between 77 and 78 years old, according to CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports. The average life expectancy in the United States in 2019 was 78.8 years. Between the flaws identified in how providers record COVID-19 deaths, the CDC’s acknowledgment that for at least one set of patients there is a difference between dying “with” and “of” COVID-19, and the provisional death count trends in some of the most common comorbidities, it is stretching credulity to assert a large portion of the decline is attributable solely to COVID-19.