'Comorbidities' Meaning Explained As CDC Director's COVID Comments Go Viral

A comment about "comorbidities" in relation to COVID-19 deaths made by Rochelle Walensky, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during a recent interview sparked backlash after a clip of the interview went viral.

During an interview Friday with ABC's Good Morning America (GMA) show, Walensky said: "The overwhelming number of [COVID-19] death, over 75 percent, occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities," during her answer to GMA co-host Cecilia Vega's question about whether it's time to "start rethinking how we're living with this virus."

Vega's question was asked in reference to headlines following a new study showing how well vaccines are working to prevent severe illness.

The CDC director added: "So really, these are people who were unwell to begin with. And yes, really encouraging news in the context of Omicron. This means not only just to get your primary series [of COVID-19 vaccines] but to get your booster series, and yes, we're really encouraged by these results."

Some Twitter users, including some public figures, alleged the latest remark from Walensky was "callous" and allegedly implied comorbidities were the "primary cause of death" for those 75 percent who died.

However, it appeared the initial edit of the GMA interview had cut out what the CDC director said prior to the statement about comorbidities, according to some Twitter users.

According to a January 10 post of the interview at the GMA website, just before Walensky referenced the 75 percent COVID-19 death figure, she elaborated on the new study mentioned by Vega, which was released by the CDC on January 7.

Walensky explained: "A study of 1.2 million people who were vaccinated between December and October demonstrated that severe disease occurred in about 0.015 percent of the people who received their primary series and death in 0.003 percent of those people."

In a tweet posted on January 9 following the GMA interview, Walensky said: "We must protect people with comorbidities from severe #COVID19. I went into medicine – HIV specifically – and public health to protect our most at-risk. CDC is taking steps to protect those at highest risk, incl. those w/ chronic health conditions, disabilities & older adults."

What Is Comorbidity?

The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) explains comorbidity is "the condition of having two or more diseases at the same time." These disorders or illnesses can occur at the same time or one after the other.

"Comorbidity also implies interactions between the illnesses that can worsen the course of both," the NIH said.

How Do Comorbidities Occur?

Various factors determine the overall health of populations as well as individuals, from "genetic and biologic characteristics of the individual to the political and policy context," explained a July 2009 study in the Annals of Family Medicine (a peer-reviewed journal) published at the NIH website. These are all also expected to play a role in co-occurring diseases.

"Intuitively, diseases would be expected to cluster in an individual if they shared a common pattern of influences or if the resilience or vulnerability of the individual was altered. But other reasons may explain this clustering," the study said.

There are three main ways by which different diseases could be found in the same person. They include chance, selection bias, or by one or more types of causal association.

Comorbidity happening by chance or selection bias is "without causal linkage" but is still important as it may lead to erroneous assumptions about causality, the study warned.

CDC Director's COVID Comments Face Backlash

The clip from Walensky's GMA interview went viral on Twitter after being widely circulated by users, including lawyer/writer Matthew Cortland, JD, who describes himself as "chronically ill, disabled" on his Twitter profile.

Cortland tweeted: "This is eugenicist," sharing a clip of the interview, which had over 870,000 views at the time of publishing.

Radio host Dan O'Donnell tweeted: "Sometimes it takes a while, but the truth eventually comes out. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky just admitted that 75 percent of those who have died of COVID-19 had four or more comorbidities that may have actually served as the primary cause of death."

In a statement to Fox News Digital, a spokesperson for the CDC said the director "did not intend comments in a recent television appearance to be hurtful toward those with disabilities."

The CDC spokesperson said Walensky is "deeply concerned and cares about the health and well-being of people with disabilities and those with medical conditions who have been impacted by COVID-19. The CDC director continues her commitment to protect all Americans in this next stage of the pandemic."

Referring to the edited clip, author James Surowiecki tweeted: "This is a lie, one that is getting picked up and repeated by right-wingers and Covid skeptics across social media. Walensky was talking only about deaths in vaccinated people, not Covid deaths generally," noting she was referring to the new CDC study.

User @David69396295 also pointed out: "Her GMA interview appears to have been edited to not show what she said before that quote. I understand why GMA wants to keep the interview short, but it does make what she said less clear," tweeted a YouTube link to the interview.

In another post, Surowiecki wrote: "Walensky seems like a good person and she has great credentials as an infectious-disease doctor. But public messaging is a huge part of the CDC Director's job, especially during a pandemic. And she has been absolutely terrible at it."

CDC director Rochelle Walensky in Washington, D.C.
Rochelle Walensky, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), testifies during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on July 20, 2021 in Washington, D.C. The CDC director faced backlash following a comment about "comorbidities" made relating to COVID-19 figures during an interview on Friday. Stefani Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images