Claim misrepresents study on COVID-19 ventilators, which had risks but saved lives | Fact check
The claim: 'Official report' shows ventilators were responsible for the majority of COVID-19 deaths
A May 13 article from The People’s Voice made a bold claim about COVID-19 deaths that it attributed to an “official report” in a headline.
“Nearly all COVID-19 patients who died in hospital during the early phase of the pandemic were killed as a direct result of being put on a ventilator, a disturbing new report has concluded,” the article begins.
The article was shared more than 1,000 times on Facebook in six days, according to CrowdTangle, a social media analytics tool.
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Our rating: False
The article drastically misrepresents a study that presented no data blaming ventilators for a large portion of COVID-19 deaths, according to one of the study's authors. Instead, it found COVID-19 patients were more likely to develop secondary bacterial pneumonia than patients with other forms of pneumonia.
Study found increased likelihood of secondary pneumonia
The article focuses on a study from Northwestern University that looked at outcomes for patients placed on mechanical ventilators while in the ICU at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. It is not an "official report" from a government agency.
The study, published April 27 in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, also did not state anywhere that ventilators were responsible for the majority of COVID-19 deaths, according to Dr. Benjamin Singer, a pulmonary medicine professor at Northwestern University and senior author of the study.
“The study has been grossly misinterpreted as a way to bolster this misinformed idea that COVID itself was not a dangerous disease and that using ventilators and mismanagement of patients was the cause of death throughout the pandemic,” said Singer, who is also a Northwestern Medicine pulmonary and critical care physician and a professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics.
The study looked at patients who were severely ill with pneumonia and required mechanical ventilation, Singer said. A known possible complication from using a ventilator is developing secondary bacterial pneumonia, and patients in the study with COVID-19 pneumonia developed secondary pneumonia 57% of the time, compared to 25% among patients with other forms of pneumonia.
Secondary pneumonia was a frequent factor when COVID-19 patients in the study died, but blaming the ventilator for the death is wrong since the patients would not have survived without going on ventilators, Singer explained. He compared the situation to blaming a surgeon for someone dying when they came to the emergency room with critical injuries from a car crash. In both cases, a medical intervention happened to give a patient who would not otherwise survive a chance to make it.
“It’s a call to our field to try to develop better ways to aggressively prevent, diagnose and treat secondary pneumonia,” Singer said.
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The secondary bacterial pneumonia in the study is also known as ventilator-associated pneumonia and develops when microorganisms reach the lower respiratory tract after someone is placed on a ventilator. The process of intubation “compromises the integrity of the oropharynx and trachea and allows oral and gastric secretions to enter the lower airways,” according to an article in Medscape, which provides training, references and news for medical professionals.
Dr. Taison Bell, director of the medical intensive care unit at the University of Virginia Medical Center and a specialist in infectious diseases and critical care, said the article mischaracterized the study. He said its claim ventilators were "killing" patients was "insulting," noting medical professionals risked their lives intubating COVID-19 patients, particularly before vaccines were available.
"Secondary bacterial pneumonia is a well-known complication of being placed on a ventilator," Bell wrote in an email. "And, unfortunately, patients with COVID-19 tend to need mechanical ventilation longer than most other patients on a ventilator. The increase in the rate of secondary pneumonia is not surprising."
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, said the writer of the article appears to have "deliberately sheered the study from its context and misinterpreted it."
Adalja said in an email that mechanical ventilation was "likely overused, to some degree, early in the pandemic before medical professionals had data showing they could use high flow nasal cannulas and non-invasive ventilation such as CPAP and BiPAP machines. But he said, "It’s not the case that mechanical ventilation was a direct cause of death – we used it to forestall immediate death."
USA TODAY has frequently debunked misrepresentations of COVID-19 research by The People’s Voice, which was formerly known as News Punch. False information shared by the site includes claims that the CDC gave deadly batches of vaccines to conservative states, that the federal government admitted a link between the disease and 5G radiation and that long-term brain damage was associated with COVID-19 vaccines.
USA TODAY reached out to The People’s Voice for comment but did not immediately receive a response.
Lead Stories and the Associated Press also debunked this claim.
Our fact-check sources:
Dr. Benjamin Singer, May 22, Phone interview with USA TODAY
Dr. Taison Bell, May 24, Email exchange with USA TODAY
Dr. Amesh Adalja, May 24, Email exchange with USA TODAY
Northwestern University, May 3, Secondary Bacterial Pneumonia Drove Many COVID-19 Deaths
Journal of Clinical Investigation. April 27, Machine learning links unresolving secondary pneumonia to mortality in patients with severe pneumonia, including COVID-19
Clinical Microbiology Reviews, Oct. 2006, Ventilator-Associated Pneumonia: Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention
Medscape, updated Dec. 29, 2022, Ventilator-Associated Pneumonia: Practice Essentials, Epidemiology of VAP, Clinical Presentation of VAP
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: False claim ventilators caused most COVID-19 deaths | Fact check