Are Car Accidents Getting Labeled as “COVID Deaths”?

Of all the increases in mortality in 2020, one that is notable is motor vehicle accidents. There were 43,045 deaths from motor vehicle accidents, according to the final CDC data. This means motor vehicle accident was listed on the death certificate, even if it was not determined to be the “underlying cause,” though for 98% of these deaths the accident was listed as the underlying cause.

The increase from past years was large. Compared with 2019, there were over 3,000 more motor vehicle deaths, though such as increase is not unheard of: 2015 and 2016 each saw increases of around 2,500. Even so, the crude death rate from motor vehicle accidents in 2020 was the highest it has been since 2008.

If that weren’t bad enough, another theory emerged in 2020 and continues to be suggested today: that car crashes are being labeled as “COVID deaths,” artificially inflating the COVID death count. While one can find this claim made almost daily by anonymous Twitter users, one of the most prominent statements was on Fox News in December 2020. Host Raymond Arroyo said that car accidents were being counted as COVID deaths, and that due to errors like this COVID deaths could be inflated by as much as 40 percent. Senator Marco Rubio made a similar claim on Twitter in December 2021, though he was talking about hospitalizations, not deaths.

Back in 2020, many doctors and medical professionals tried to debunk the “car accidents being labeled as COVID deaths” claim, but the problem was we didn’t have complete data. Anonymous anecdotes were cited, but medical professionals tried to reassure the public this wasn’t the case or at least wasn’t widespread.

But now, we have the data! That is, the complete CDC mortality data for 2020 available through the CDC WONDER database.

What does this data show us? Short answer: there aren’t that many car accidents being labeled as COVID deaths. At most, it’s about 0.03% of COVID deaths.

Here is the headline data: in 2020, there were 384,536 deaths in the US where COVID-19 was listed as a cause of death. Of those deaths, over 91 percent (350,831 deaths) listed COVID as the underlying cause. Perhaps we should be skeptical of what doctors and hospitals choose to list as the underlying cause. Do they have an incentive, economic or political, to inflate the numbers? Digging a little deeper into the data might help us answer this question.

Of all 384,536 deaths in the US with COVID-19 on the death certificate, how many of those were also motor vehicle accidents? In other words, how many death certificates listed both COVID-19 and a motor vehicle accident.

124 deaths. And of these deaths, only 57 listed COVID as the underlying cause.

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean any fraud is going on. As the NCHS Chief of Mortality Statistics explained in March 2021, it’s certainly possible for someone to get in a car accident, have injuries that aren’t on their own life threatening, but then later contract COVID and die as a result of the complications.

But we don’t really need to worry about it, because these are just so small! The “car accidents labeled as COVID deaths” problem isn’t really a problem at all, at least as far as skewing the aggregate number of COVID deaths in any meaningful way.

Perhaps though car crash-COVID deaths were just a symbolically interesting example. Even if the number is 0.03% of the total, might there be other deaths being labeled as “COVID deaths”?

We can further investigate the 384,536 deaths which included COVID on the death certificate. Of all these deaths, what was the underlying cause of death listed, if not COVID? Recall that 91 percent do list COVID as the underlying cause. What about the other 9 percent? Here’s the data, again from CDC WONDER.

This is all the causes of deaths with 1,000 or more deaths, that also listed COVID as a contributing cause. With these categories, we account for 97% of COVID deaths in 2020. None of these look suspicious as far as death certificates faking COVID deaths, as most are standard comorbidities for COVID-19. Within the accidents, the largest subcategory is “accidental falls,” which are 808 of the 1,343 deaths. But even if all the accidents are some faked COVID deaths, were talking about an error of 0.3%.

Bottom line: most COVID deaths are real. The numbers aren’t being inflated by car accidents, etc. And the same can be said for 2021. While CDC still considers this death data “provisional and partial,” of the 429,470 deaths which list COVID on the death certificate (as of today), just 995 list accidents as the underlying cause, and only 48 list motor vehicle accidents as the underlying cause. Car accidents are about 0.01% of COVID deaths in 2021.

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