Skepticism

COVID-19’s Comorbidities: Which Vaccinated People are Dying?

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Transcript:

Over the past two years of this pandemic, I’ve mentioned the word “comorbidities” several times, and I think I defined it once or twice, but I haven’t really talked much about what it truly means in the current landscape. So! Let’s do it.

This week, the personification of a small bag of coke hidden in a hedge fund manager’s asshole Donald Trump, Jr. tweeted “75% of “Covid Deaths” were in people with at least 4 comorbidities according to the CDC. 

That’s it. That’s the tweet.”

WOW, such a mic drop! Nevermind the fact that his statement is wrong – actually, don’t “nevermind” it, let’s actually start with that. He got that figure from an interview the director of the CDC did with Good Morning America. Dr. Rochelle Walensky told GMA that “a study of 1.2 million people who (were) vaccinated between December and October…demonstrated that severe disease occurred in about .015% of the people…and death in .003% of those people. The overwhelming number of deaths, over 75%, occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities.”

She was clearly talking about people who had been vaccinated, but GMA’s editors screwed up and in the interview that was broadcast they snipped out the bit about them being vaccinated. This led to a conservative field day. “Basically all the deaths are people who were, I dunno, just gonna die anyway, or whatever” was the messaging that Don Jr. et al went with. 

While I’m glad that GMA released the full transcript to correct the record on what Walensky was actually saying, it ultimately does not matter, because the conservative crowing reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what comorbidities are. And additionally, Walensky’s actual, in-context statement went on to be kind of shitty! She continued, “So really, these are people who were unwell to begin with. And yes, really encouraging in the context of omicron…yes, we’re really encouraged by these results.”

Yes, it IS encouraging that most thrice-vaccinated people will survive COVID! And yes, having four comorbidities IS “unwell.” But maybe there’s a better way to say it, because those quite unwell people took it upon themselves as individuals to do what we’ve all been saying they should do – they got three vaccines! They probably quarantined as best they could! They probably wore masks! All those things tend to go together. And they still died. Why? Because the people who don’t have comorbidities, or who THINK they don’t have comorbidities, didn’t think their lives were worth saving because they were just going to die anyway. And fuck those people.

With that in mind, let’s talk about what the comorbidities actually are and whether or not we’re talking about people who are barely clinging on to life anyway.

You probably already know that COVID-19, like any disease, really, is worse for people with “comorbidities.” Comorbidities are just conditions that a person has – could be another virus, a bacteria, a fungal growth, a just a state of being, physical or psychological – that can overlap with the primary disease of concern. Sometimes the term is used to describe conditions that often go hand-in-hand, like how anxiety and depression often exist at the same time in one patient. Like in me! I have those comorbidities. Aren’t I special!

In the case of COVID-19, comorbidities refer to the underlying conditions that increase your risk of having a rough time, turning what could otherwise be a really bad cold into something requiring hospitalization or ventilation, or even leading to death.

I’m actually kind of surprised to look back over the past two years of my videos and not see this addressed because I HAVE had to address it privately to some friends and family members, like since the very beginning of this pandemic. I remember it first came up when someone I knew said that the fear over COVID was overblown because the only people who were dying were old people and obese people. Big sigh. Don’t worry, I am not friends with that person.

Age and BMI are comorbidities for COVID-19. Lately I’ve seen some people argue that it’s fatphobic to point that out, but I’m sorry, it’s true. It’s not age-ist to point out that older people are more at risk just as it’s not fatphobic to point out that obese people are more at risk. You can argue all you want that you, as an individual, don’t let BMI define you, or that your individual BMI isn’t valid because you’re a bodybuilder, or whatever. It doesn’t matter to this conversation because this is actually using it the way it’s meant to be used: as a population-level statistic that allows us to understand increasing risk factors. It’s not a value judgment anymore than any other comorbidity.

That said, I find it beyond disgusting when people like the person I mentioned earlier dismiss deaths because a person had a particular comorbidity. Not only do those people’s lives matter just as much as anyone else’s, but it’s ridiculous to say a disease that disproportionately affects older and higher BMI people isn’t going to be a big deal when here in the United States, when 16% of Americans are over the age of 65 and a MAJORITY of Americans, nearly 70%, have a BMI that is considered at least “overweight.” Even if you don’t care about those people as individuals because you’re a sociopathic monster, you should at least care about them on a population level because that many people being disabled and killed by an otherwise preventable disease will absolutely bring a society to its knees.

You may have gathered from the CDC director’s comment about 4 comorbidities, there are more comorbidities than being overweight or old. Here’s the complete list of other conditions that significantly increase your risk of hospitalization or death from COVID-19:

  1. Cancer. Obviously, any kind of cancer is going to make you more vulnerable, but people with blood cancer fare worse than those with solid tumors. There’s even evidence that people who have a history of cancer in the past, even if they’ve recovered, may be more at risk.
  2. Chronic kidney or liver disease
  3. Chronic lung diseases, including moderate to severe asthma
  4. Dementia
  5. Diabetes (both types)
  6. Down Syndrome
  7. Heart conditions, including heart failure, coronary artery disease, cardiomyopathies, and possibly high blood pressure
  8. HIV
  9. Immunocompromised state due to a genetic condition or taking medicine that hampers your immune system, which includes the prolonged use of steroids like cortisone or prednisone
  10. Mental health disorders, including depression!!!
  11. Pregnancy – that’s right! Pregnancy.
  12. Sickle cell disease
  13. Smoking, and that includes people who used to smoke but quit.
  14. Solid organ or blood stem cell transplant
  15. Stroke (as in, if you’ve ever had one)
  16. Substance abuse, including alcohol or opioids
  17. Tuberculosis

There you go, including age and weight that’s 20 items that encompass several dozen additional specific conditions. So when the CDC director says 75% of fully vaccinated patients who die from COVID-19 had four or more comorbidities, that may include someone on their death bed with a debilitating stroke, a malfunctioning liver, blood cancer, and tuberculosis because why not. But it could also mean Emily, your 65-year old neighbor who is 5’4 and weighs 160 pounds, who quit smoking five years ago and recently got a prescription for Zoloft. She liked to garden, she had a monthly pinochle club, she had two cats named Helter and Skelter. She had a good sense of humor and always remembered everyone’s birthday. She got triple vaccinated not for herself, because she was healthy, but for all the people around her in her community. Her husband doesn’t know what he’s going to do with his life, now. Her daughter is devastated that Emily will never meet her granddaughter.

What did you accomplish in your previous 20 years? Because Emily had that much time left if everyone had been like her and got vaccinated and wore their masks. But someone sent their coughing kid to school and that infected a teacher who infected another kid who gave it to his dad who went to his monthly card club last month and now Emily is dead and the director of the CDC is calling it a win.

I’m not suggesting Emily is the bulk of the vaccinated people who died of COVID, but I am suggesting that we need to do away with the conservative talking point that says people with comorbidities are just waiting around taking up resources until their inevitable death. These are human beings with lives and hopes and dreams and they did everything they could to stay safe and it wasn’t enough because of Donald Trump, Jr. and his death cult, all of whom most assuredly have more comorbidities than they realize. Unfortunately, they won’t realize how much they have in common with people like Emily until it’s too late.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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2 Comments

  1. In libertarian/Rogan/Crossfit language, ‘comorbidity’ is a synonym for ‘lifestyle choice.’ Which is a blank check for social nihilism and anarchy.
    This alcoholic, 65 year old cancer patient ain’t buying it.

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