CDC's Walensky debunks false notion about COVID-19 deaths due to comorbidities

During a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Tuesday, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky clarified remarks from an interview Friday that she noted were taken out of context. She said her statement referred to a study of 1.2 million vaccinated individuals, and that 36 of those individuals died, adding that many of those individuals had comorbidities.

Video transcript

BOB CASEY JR: Doctor, I'm quoting from a statement you made on Friday on television in the context of a question about COVID-19 deaths. And I'll quote two sentences. One is quote, "the overwhelming number of deaths over 75% occurred in people who had at least four co-morbidities. So really, these are people who were unwell to begin with. And yes, really encouraging the news in the context of Omicron." Unquote.

Now this statement, and I know was part of a broader interview, caused great concern. I know from my work as a senator for years that you and your team at CDC, whether it's the policy or the work that you do, that policy and that work are both focused on ensuring that all Americans receive the best possible treatment and protection. This is especially important for older adults and people with disabilities who may need additional supports and protections.

So context is important in a interview like this. But please explain what point you were making. That's number one. The point you were making. And secondly, outline CDC's commitment to protecting older adults and people with disabilities as we continue to address the pandemic.

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Senator Casey, I'm really grateful for the opportunity to explain this. And to step back, that interview on Friday, I recently spoke to a study on the high level of protection against vaccines. It was a pre-taped interview. And much of it was cut. And that phrase was taken out of context, as you note.

The study was a cohort of 1.2 million people who were vaccinated and 36 people passed, demonstrating their remarkable effectiveness of our vaccines, but no less tragic is the 36 people who passed because of COVID-19, and that many of them had co-morbidities, comorbidities that I've spent my career taking care of, comorbidities that just prior to coming to the CDC we saw time and time again disproportionately impacting people with COVID-19 in the hospitals that I cared for patients.

So what are we doing at CDC given the critical importance? Well we have toolkits for COVID-19 for patients with disabilities. We have accessible materials that are available in Braille in American Sign Language so that people with disabilities in easier to read and understand language so that people with disabilities can access our materials.

We have improved data collection systems on our COVID data tracker. You can track vaccination status by disability. And we've worked with states to make sure that those are reporting. And then we're funding partners in our public health partners to do more for patients with disability. And if anything, this issue on Friday has redoubled our commitment to continuing to make sure that we have access for people with disabilities. Thank you for allowing me to clarify.

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