The CDC recently erred by adding hundreds of extra deaths to its pediatric tally through a “coding error”. In the days before the CDC issued its correction, alarmed doctors took note of the seemingly enormous rise in pediatric deaths. I was confused as to why the American Academy of Pediatrics was raising its grim death tally by 20 children per week, while the CDC was adding this many deaths every day. I know now what happened.

Nonetheless, I reported the inflated CDC data in a recent article here and issued the following correction upon learning of the CDC’s error:

A previous version of this article misstated the total number of children who had died of COVID and that one-third of these deaths came during the recent Omicron surge. This information was due to miscoded information reported by the CDC COVID Data Tracker, which erroneously added several hundred deaths to the pediatric tally.

I don’t want my readers to learn misinformation. This matters a great deal to me.

I am not alone in this, of course. Other doctors similarly shared corrections on social media (here and here). Science writer Melody Schreiber issued a correction to her article on the subject. It is now called “A Fifth of All US Child Covid Deaths Occurred During Omicron Surge” and it says that “Since the beginning of the current year, 179 children have died from Covid-19 in the US, compared with 735 children in the preceding 20 months”.

That’s depressing. I wrote previously how important it is to remember these are actually children, not just numbers on a government website, which is what this essay is all about.

As things now stand, the CDC’s Covid Data Tracker reports 1,341 pediatric fatalities, however this comes from of pool of 782,371 deaths, or about 80% of deaths so far. The pediatric death toll will only continue to grow sadly. Death is the worst, but not the only bad outcome, of course. According to a recent CDC report about the Omicron variant, “U.S. infants and children aged 0–4 years were hospitalized at approximately five times the rate of the previous peak during Delta variant predominance. Infants aged <6 months had the highest rates of hospitalization”. Moreover, 63% of hospitalized infants and children had no underlying medical conditions. There have been 7,500 cases of MIS-C, and 63 children have died from this very serious condition.

Whatever the actual number, normal people feel over 1,000 dead children is a tragically large number, especially considering these deaths can be almost entirely prevented with a vaccine for children over 5-years. As Ms. Schreiber said:

The fact remains: more than 1,300 children have died, and vaccines will prevent more deaths.

Exactly. This is the core message. There are potential sources of both overcounting and undercounting of pediatric COVID deaths. It’s crucial that the CDC try to report as accurate numbers as possible.

However, the advice regarding the vaccine wouldn’t be substantially different if the death toll were 1,000 or 2,000 children. I advocated for pediatric COVID vaccine, when “only” 482 children had died of COVID. I bet you don’t have any clue how many children die in bike accidents per year, but your knowledge of that number wouldn’t change your opinion on the value of helmets.

Similarly, the vaccine isn’t perfect, but it’s much safer than the virus. Those of us who shared the inflated CDC data know that the case for vaccinating children is already extremely strong and that pediatric vaccination rates are way too low. We also know that children under 5-years cannot get vaccinated currently and that infants have the highest rate of dying. We don’t want any child to suffer or die from a vaccine-preventable virus. Prior to the pandemic, this wasn’t a controversial opinion in the medical field, though now it is.

However, while we all reported what we thought was accurate data from a reliable source, we nonetheless reported incorrect information. Seeing doctors who don’t want children to die of COVID report wrong information prompted one delighted Urgency of Normal fan to ask “Will there be any apologies from all the people who have been spreading panic with the old incorrect numbers?!?”

Well, I don’t think anyone but the CDC should apologize for their coding error, but doctors and journalists with integrity knew it was important to immediately and publicly set the record straight. So that’s what we did. As Dr. Julia Raifman said:

We should have high standards for correct information, esp in a pandemic…Most experts worked to share the facts.

Indeed, most experts do work to share the facts, but not all of them. Dr. Raifman also recognized that a “small number of ‘experts’ perpetuated inaccurate info & partial truths”. Readers of Science Based Medicine are very familiar with these “experts”. They can be found wherever there is a camera, not at the bedside of a sick child. Dr. Raifman’s concern for accuracy stands in stark contrast to their infinite tolerance for repeated errors of basic fact – always minimizing the risks of the virus and overstating the harms of the vaccine, never admitting error or correcting their misinformation.

Doctors should strive to be accurate and thorough and particularly when they communicate with the public about a virus that has killed over 1,300 children. This is where I’d quibble with Dr. Raifman. This is not a “high standard”. This is the bare minimum. It’s shameful that so many doctors have failed to meet it.

Author

  • Dr. Jonathan Howard is a neurologist and psychiatrist based in New York City who has been interested in vaccines since long before COVID-19.

Posted by Jonathan Howard

Dr. Jonathan Howard is a neurologist and psychiatrist based in New York City who has been interested in vaccines since long before COVID-19.