GOP uses debunked theory to downplay COVID-19 death toll
Top Republicans are seeking to downplay the heavy toll of the coronavirus, in part by pointing to a conspiracy theory that the number of deaths is much lower.
President Trump, along with Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), who are both in competitive Senate races, have all pointed in recent days to the widely debunked theory that COVID-19 deaths in the United States total just 10,000 instead of the more than 180,000 recorded by health officials.
The speculative remarks come at a time when about 1,000 people a day are dying from the virus, providing a grim backdrop to the final sprint to Election Day. Trump, meanwhile, has been trying to project an optimistic message, frequently pointing to rapid progress toward a vaccine and saying he thinks the virus is “going away.”
The Trump administration has also increasingly emphasized protecting vulnerable populations such as the elderly rather than putting a focus on a broader strategy of trying to suppress the disease overall.
The discredited theory in question points to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) webpage stating that the coronavirus was listed as the sole cause for only 6 percent of deaths from the virus. However, that does not mean the other 94 percent of people did not die from the coronavirus. Instead, it means that another factor directly caused by the coronavirus, such as respiratory failure, was also listed or that there was an underlying condition, such as obesity or diabetes, that is not necessarily fatal on its own but heightens the risks from the coronavirus.
The 6 percent figure has been seized on, however, to minimize the death toll. Last weekend, Trump retweeted a post from user Mel Q, who is a believer in the QAnon conspiracy theory, saying only about 9,000 people had “actually” died from the coronavirus. Twitter later removed the tweet for violating its rules.
Ernst likewise said Monday that she is “so skeptical” of case and death counts from the coronavirus, later adding, according to the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, “They’re thinking there may be 10,000 or less deaths that were actually singularly COVID-19. … I’m just really curious. It would be interesting to know that.”
Marshall, who is a doctor, pointed to the theory based on the 6 percent statistic in a Facebook post Sunday.
“This week the CDC quietly updated its COVID-19 data to reflect the number of deaths from COVID-19 only,” he wrote, adding that it was “only 6%,” according to a screenshot posted by KSNT.
Facebook removed the post, with a spokesperson saying it violated “our policies against spreading harmful misinformation about COVID-19 since it misstates CDC data about the deadliness of the disease.”
The prominence of the discredited theory and its embrace among high-level Republicans has dismayed experts.
“It’s completely, to me, mind-boggling that people are using this as fodder for some conspiracy theory,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security.
He said experts have long said that underlying conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure are risk factors for having a more severe case of the coronavirus, so “that’s not anything surprising” that such conditions were listed as present in many coronavirus deaths.
“I’m not sure why this is even a story other than people are trying to minimize what is a serious infectious disease,” Adalja added.
Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, likewise said on ABC this week, “That does not mean that someone who has hypertension or diabetes who dies of COVID didn’t die of COVID-19 — they did — so the numbers that you’ve been hearing, the 180,000-plus deaths, are real deaths from COVID-19.”
Asked about Trump’s retweets at a press conference Monday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump was “highlighting new CDC information that came out that was worth noting.”
Ernst took a different tone in a statement released by her office, saying, “Over 180,000 Americans have died because of COVID-19. What matters is that we are getting the resources to Iowa that are needed to fight this virus and continuing to support our health care workers on the front lines, and that’s what I’m focused on.”
Marshall’s campaign manager, Eric Pahls, wrote in an email, “Dr. Marshall was simply presenting data from the CDC. He didn’t offer some sort of spin or analysis,” adding that the Senate candidate “respects this virus.”
The promotion of the debunked theory has come alongside other efforts to question the effects of the coronavirus. During a rally Thursday, Trump mocked Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden for wearing a mask.
“Did you ever see a man that likes a mask as much as him?” Trump said to a largely maskless crowd while also saying he is “all for” people wearing masks. Trump himself rarely wears a mask.
The president has also put an increased emphasis on encouraging lower-risk people to go on with their lives, emphasizing instead protections for the elderly.
“We are aggressively sheltering those at highest risk, especially the elderly, while allowing lower-risk Americans to safely return to work and to school,” Trump said in his prime-time acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last week.
That approach is in line with suggestions from White House adviser Scott Atlas, a doctor who does not have a background in infectious diseases and is affiliated with the conservative Hoover Institution. Atlas has downplayed concerns about the virus spreading among people who are not elderly or in other high-risk groups, even saying it could be a good thing.
“When you isolate everyone, including all the healthy people, you’re prolonging the problem because you’re preventing population immunity,” Atlas said in a Fox News radio interview in July. “Low-risk groups getting the infection is not a problem. In fact, it’s a positive.”
Scott Gottlieb, Trump’s former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, countered that viewpoint in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece last weekend. “The best way to protect the vulnerable is to try to protect everyone,” he wrote, emphasizing that the virus needed to be contained.
The White House denies it is pursuing the population immunity or herd immunity strategy referred to by Atlas.
The criticism comes on the heels of new testing guidance from the CDC late last month that recommended cutting back on testing of asymptomatic people not in high-risk groups. The guidance said asymptomatic people do not need to be tested, even if they have been in close contact with an infected person, “unless you are a vulnerable individual or your health care provider or State or local public health officials recommend you take one.”
Amid a firestorm from experts saying the country needs more testing, not less, CDC Director Robert Redfield sought to clarify the guidance but did not rescind it.
Democrats, meanwhile, are on the attack, pointing in particular to Republicans questioning the death toll.
Theresa Greenfield, the Democratic Senate nominee in Iowa, said Ernst was pushing “dangerous conspiracy theories that undermine the very folks on the frontlines sacrificing to keep us safe.”
Helen Kalla, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, added, “We can’t afford leaders who peddle false information and dangerous conspiracy theories and refuse to take the pandemic seriously.”
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