CDC director: Why no, we still can't tell correlation from causation in COVID statistics

CDC director: Why no, we still can't tell correlation from causation in COVID statistics

Why the hell not? The CDC has tracked the COVID-19 pandemic for two years now, since its breakout from China at the beginning of 2020. Rochelle Walensky has run the CDC for almost half that time, a period in which the most pressing concerns about vaccines had already been addressed, while the agency followed the previous administration in dropping the ball on mass production of tests.

One of the most basic questions in any pandemic is true mortality rate. Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC still hasn’t set up a system to distinguish causation from correlation, Walensky admits:

“Do you know how many of the 836,000 deaths in the U.S. linked to COVID are from COVID or how many are with COVID but they had other comorbidities, do you have that breakdown?” Baier asked.

“Yes of course, with Omicron we’re following that very carefully. Our death registry, of course, takes a few weeks to collect and, of course, Omicron has just been with us for a few weeks, but those data will be forthcoming,” Walensky replied.

Ahem. The CDC’s data reporting website makes no such distinction at all. It’s not a case of waiting a few weeks for their “death registry” to catch up. All of its data on admissions and deaths are entirely correlative and always has been. The causation data simply doesn’t exist, and it never did.

This is important for more than just deaths when it comes to public policy, but let’s start there. The failure of the CDC to impose reporting requirements for degree of causation in deaths correlated to a COVID-19 diagnosis has left us completely unable to gauge risk and craft public policy with Omicron. We know from hard data that Omicron is far more transmissible than earlier variants, but we have no idea how dangerous it is otherwise. And even if we have that eventually with Omicron, we don’t have comparative data from other variants. My friend John Hinderaker at Power Line has done some fine work in using excess-mortality rates to determine actual risk in the pandemic, but this is only a secondary measure that is less reliable than the kind of measures the CDC should have had in place by mid-summer of 2020.

However, this failure has a broader impact than just on reported deaths. The lack of causation data on hospital admissions prompted a major media hysteria last month when COVID-correlated pediatric admissions suddenly jumped. Reporters jumped to the conclusion that Omicron had turned potentially deadly for children — even while no one could point to an Omicron-caused death in the entire world. Anthony Fauci had to finally throw some cold water on the hysteria by pointing out that the admission spike was likely correlative and perhaps not even a spike in overall pediatric admissions at all, a point that Sonia Sotomayor spectacularly missed last week.

But why did the CDC not have the proper measure of causative COVID-19 admissions in the first place? They have created extraordinary reporting mechanisms for all other aspects of COVID-19, but have never closed the loop on the most important data point of all — causative admissions and deaths. If we had that at the beginning of Omicron, we might have all been breathing sighs of relief at its apparent mildness.

Instead, we are still stuck with secondary, indirect measures like this:

In the beginning, before any vaccines or naturally acquired immunity began to spread in the population, the difference might not have been important enough to prioritize a significant change in reporting requirements. By the summer of 2020, however, it was clear we were in for a long haul and that mortality/admission data would be critical for public policy and resource allocations. The CDC has failed in the mission of providing accurate data for such decisions, and apparently still doesn’t place a high priority on developing it.

Why? Again, in the beginning the CDC may have thought that the virus was deadly enough to make such analysis moot, but that excuse is long gone now.  One has to suspect that Omicron’s mildness would undermine the argument for extraordinary federal interventions in the workplace and elsewhere, and that might be why the CDC is reluctant to provide an accurate profile of risk on any variant. Hanlon’s Razor would suggest, though, that this is just pure incompetence. Either way, it’s an argument for cleaning house at the CDC.

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David Strom 9:21 PM on February 02, 2023