Fact Check: Are 80% Of Coronavirus Cases Considered 'Mild?'

Mar 18, 2020

We're starting off Wednesday not with politics, but, yes, with coronavirus. Social media has been full of charts and graphics about COVID-19 and how to protect yourself against it. We look at one that's been making its rounds. The chart involves classifications of the coronavirus. Now there aren't standard definitions, but mild to moderate cases include symptoms like a fever and dry cough. Some cases may involve a mild form of pneumonia that requires hospitilizaton. The chart we're fact checking says that 80% of coronavirus cases are mild. Joining us to assess this claim is WRAL's Paul Specht.

Lisa Worf: Good morning, Paul.

Paul Specht: Good morning.

Worf: You do hear this number a lot these days, but tell me about where you found this specific chart.

Specht: This chart comes from a website called Information is Beautiful.

Worf: Not very official-sounding.

Specht: No, it's not a scientific site, but they're known just for making cool and interesting graphs and charts.

Worf: And so in this chart, what is the specific claim, then?

Specht: So they took information from the Chinese Center of Disease Control and a website called Statistics. And they looked at available coronavirus cases and broke down which were mild, which were severe and which ones left people dead. And they put it in a chart to show that 80.9% of cases turned out to be mild.

That grabbed our attention because that's an oddly specific number. And we just hadn't seen it. And so PolitiFact, as you know, is based in Florida. But we have offices in Washington and North Carolina as well as several other states. And it's sort of an all-hands-on-deck thing for fact-checking coronavirus related claims. And so we decided to dig into this one.

Worf: And the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, I take it that's kind of like our CDC, then.

Specht: Yes, that's right.

Worf: So what did you find about this claim? Do other health organizations back this up?

Specht: We weren't able to verify that specific number, 80.9. But what we did find was that most credible organizations such as the U.S. CDC and the World Health Organization and then another study done and published in the New England Journal of Medicine put that rate somewhere between 70 and 80%. So it's not far off at all.

Worf: And since this virus is so new, where do these other studies and organizations get their information from?

Specht: Most of them were done either in December and January or February. So these numbers are mostly taken from China before the outbreak really got heavy in the United States. So some people may say this. There are new numbers now and that might be true. New numbers come out as it progresses and as more people get tested and more cases are discovered. But for the time being, this information from as recently as February is the best we have.

Worf: How did you rate this then?

Specht: The chart has that percentage and it's not precise, but it's generally correct. So we rated it "mostly true."

Worf: And now we get to the politics -- sort of. State representative Kelly Alexander, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County, tweeted last week that the General Assembly should consider video conferencing. The legislature session is scheduled for April 28th. And in that tweet, he added, "After all, most of the GA's members are in the high-risk age group." First of all, what is the high-risk age group?

Specht: The high-risk age group is considered older adults. And there's no one universal definition for "older," which leaves a lot of leeway for people who don't want to be accused of being old. But the World Health Organization did warn in one of its studies that it generally considers older people to be above 60. And so that's the baseline we looked at.

Worf: And what are your chances of surviving COVID-19 if you do fall into this older age group?

Specht: I don't have the numbers for people who are 60 and older, but if you're 80 and older, the death rate does climb from about 2% to 14%, or at least that's what China found.

Worf: So is Rep. Alexander right? Are most General Assembly members above the age of 60 then?

Specht: He is right. There are 170 members in the General Assembly. One hundred and twenty are in the state House and 50 are in the Senate. So we have 170. And we talked to the clerks in both chambers and it turns out that 91 members are 60 or older -- which accounts for a little more than half of the entire General Assembly.

Worf: So how did you rate Rep. Alexander's claim then?

Specht: The numbers back him up. So we rated his claim. True.

Lisa Worf: That's WRAL's Paul Specht. Thanks, Paul.

Specht: Thank you.

Worf: And these fact checks are a collaboration between WRAL and PolitiFact. You can hear them Wednesdays on WFAE's "Morning Edition."