When Texas health officials reported Monday that a man died after testing positive for the Omicron variant of COVID-19, the media jumped all over the story and claimed he was the first in America “to die of the Omicron variant.”
What did the media report?
Various headlines blared similar messages this week, claiming that a Texas man between the ages of 50 and 60 who was not vaccinated against COVID became the first American to fall victim to the Omicron variant.
Reuters: “Texas’ Harris County records its first death linked to Omicron variant”
Business Insider: “The first American to die of the Omicron variant was an unvaccinated Texas man who had previously caught COVID-19”
Newsweek: “First Omicron Death in U.S. Was Reinfection–A Warning to Those Who’ve Already Had COVID
KHOU-TV: “Unvaccinated man with health issues in Harris County becomes first known omicron death in US”
Washington Post: “Unvaccinated Houston man’s death may be first attributed to omicron in U.S.”
Axios: “First confirmed U.S. Omicron death recorded in Texas”
The Independent: “Unvaccinated Texas man first in US to die of Omicron variant”
But what did health officials say?
Importantly, Harris County public health officials did not say the man died from the Omicron variant of COVID-19. Rather, the man died after testing positive for the Omicron variant, meaning he died with it.
In fact, Martha Marquez, a spokesperson for the Harris County Public Health Department, confirmed Tuesday that health officials are not saying the man died from the Omicron variant; simply, they reported the death of a man who was Omicron-positive when he passed away.
“We can’t confirm that the patient from COVID, but we can say that he was Omicron-positive at the time of his death,” Marquez explained.
“This information comes from our epidemiologists, who are the ones who get the reports. They have to do a very meticulous investigation, because, you know, they do take this very much at heart,” she added. “They are telling me that they cannot say that COVID was the absolute cause of death.”
Similar confusion has plagued reporting throughout the pandemic because health officials often do not differentiate between people who died from COVID-19 and those who died with the virus — but not from it. Often, any death in which the deceased was COVID-positive at the time of death is reported as a COVID-19 death.
The Harris County Public Health Department seemingly aided confusion in a press release with the headline, “Harris County Reports First COVID-19 Omicron Variant-Related Death.” The sub-heading, however, read, “Unvaccinated man with underlying health conditions had tested positive for the Omicron variant.”
Harris County public health officials have not said anything more about the death, nor have they revealed the “underlying conditions” the deceased man had. This is important because, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains, up to 95% — or perhaps even more — of all COVID deaths have happened among people with co-morbidities or other underlying diseases.
“There were co-morbidities or other conditions listed on the death certificate for as many as 95% of all COVID-19 deaths,” the agency explains. “The other 5% of death certificates in which COVID-19 was the only condition listed was likely related to a lack of detail listed about other conditions present at the time of death.”