February 14, 2022

The omicron variant of COVID-19 has proved to be less severe than previous strains of the virus, but deaths in the U.S. have remained high due to its higher transmissibility, health experts have said.

A recent article in The Washington Post noted the high death toll in recent months and noted that omicron had been particularly harder on the elderly and unvaccinated Americans.

A social media post used the headline from that story alongside an image of a graphic embedded in the story to misleadingly suggest the Post article was misinforming readers.

“Here is an article caption by The Washington Post,” the Feb. 8 Facebook post read. “Look at the second image for a statistical reference. That was provided within this article. You tell us if this headline is misleading or misinformation.”

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

That’s because the headline is right — and the graphic is right. And they are not contradictory, as the Facebook post suggests.

“Deaths highest in a year as omicron hits unvaccinated, elderly” reads the headline in one image. Next to it, a screengrab shows a graphic from that story illustrating deaths by age groups since the start of the pandemic.

It’s not clear if the author of the post takes issue with the death totals rising or the fact that the headline mentions the toll on the unvaccinated. But the claim is incorrect on either count.

If you navigate to the original Post story, which is not linked in the Facebook post, you will find the first paragraph reads: “Though considered milder than other coronavirus variants, omicron has infected so many people that it has driven the number of daily deaths beyond where it was last spring, before vaccines were widely available, according to Washington Post data.”

Indeed, the Post’s data tracker, which is linked to in the story and draws from Johns Hopkins University figures, shows that COVID-19 deaths for all ages are higher than at any time since the previous spring, including during the delta surge in September. The CDC’s numbers, which are based on deaths reported by states and territories, differ slightly from the Post’s, but show a similar trend.

The story goes on to say that, according to health officials, omicron has been especially deadly for Americans over age 75, the unvaccinated and medically vulnerable people, citing doctors and health officials

The graphic shows the percentage of total deaths by age group over time since April 2020 through January 2022, based on CDC data. It reveals that people over age 75 made up about half of the COVID-19 deaths in January.

The Post article cites doctors and public health officials when discussing deaths among unvaccinated Americans during the recent omicron surge, which began shortly after Thanksgiving. The City of Chicago, for example, “reported an age-adjusted death rate peaking at 14 per 100,000 for the unvaccinated around Jan. 22 compared to about 1 per 100,000 for the boosted,” the Post article said.

The  most recent CDC data on deaths by vaccination status from Sept. 19 through Dec. 4, 2021, shows unvaccinated Americans dying at a rate of 9.74 per 100,000 cases, compared with 0.10 per 100,000 for fully vaccinated people.

Our ruling

A Facebook post accused The Washington Post of misleading readers with a headline showing that the omicron variant of COVID-19 has pushed deaths in the U.S. to their highest numbers in a year and that the elderly and unvaccinated have been hit hardest.

It juxtaposed the headline with a graphic from the article that showed the percentage of deaths by age group, indicating that the omicron variant has hit people over 75 particularly hard in recent months.

Data from Johns Hopkins University — which the Post used — as well as CDC totals show that deaths had risen recently to their highest numbers since last spring. While data on deaths by vaccination status aren’t yet available after Dec. 4, the Post spoke with doctors and public health officials who noted a higher death rate among unvaccinated Americans.

The Post’s article was neither misleading or misinformation, but this Facebook post was.

We rate this claim False.

This fact check was originally published by PolitiFact, which is part of the Poynter Institute. It is republished here with permission. See the sources for this fact check here and more of their fact checks here.

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Jeff Cercone is a contributing writer for PolitiFact. He has previously worked as a content editor for the Chicago Tribune and for the South Florida…
Jeff Cercone

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