Iowa Republican senator Joni Ernst, who is in the midst of a tough reelection campaign, on Tuesday questioned America’s official coronavirus death count, echoing conspiracy theories popular on the far right (including with President Trump).
The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reports that during a campaign stop in rural Waterloo, Ernst responded to a constituent who said he didn’t believe the official numbers by saying that she was “so skeptical” of them as well.
“These health-care providers and others are reimbursed at a higher rate if COVID is tied to it, so what do you think they’re doing?” Ernst remarked.
The Courier reports that when Ernst was asked to clarify her comments post-event, she didn’t exactly back away from them. “They do get reimbursed higher amounts if it’s a COVID-19-related illness or death,” Ernst said. “I heard the same thing on the news … 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.”
The idea that the American medical establishment has inflated coronavirus death totals has gained currency since the early days of the pandemic, particularly among those who believe that restrictions imposed by authorities have gone too far or are even unnecessary. As the Washington Post reports, the argument is popular among followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Over the weekend, President Trump — another “just really curious” person — retweeted a QAnon backer who falsely claimed that the CDC had updated its death statistics to reflect the fact that only 6 percent of deaths from the virus were actually caused by it. In fact, the agency had merely clarified that 6 percent of patients with COVID-19 had no comorbidities — secondary conditions, like diabetes, that often exacerbate the coronavirus’s effects but are not the central factor in a patient’s death. In the other 94 percent of cases, patients were judged to have comorbidities but the coronavirus was still the primary cause of death.
Fact-checking the claim that doctors have a financial incentive to inflate coronavirus numbers, PolitFact has found that while doctors were receiving a 20 percent increase in payments for coronavirus patients, that was the result of the federal stimulus bill passed in March, which was attempting to compensate hospitals for quickly falling revenue as most Americans stayed home and for the high costs of treating a patient with the virus. Doctors have said that reporting criteria are strict and that nobody is exaggerating COVID-19 numbers. And expert after expert has said that the 180,000-plus COVID-19 deaths in America isn’t an overcount but likely a vast undercount.
Iowa has seen a major surge in coronavirus cases recently; they’ve gone up 124 percent in two weeks, according to the New York Times. Ernst’s remarks provided immediate fodder for Theresa Greenfield, Ernst’s opponent, who called her comments “appalling.”