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WASHINGTON (AP) — Echoing a discredited conspiracy theory, vulnerable Republican Sen. Joni Ernst is suggesting government statistics on coronavirus infections and deaths have been inflated.
Ernst, who is facing an unexpectedly tough reelection fight, made the comment after a man at a campaign stop in Waterloo, Iowa, said he believes the numbers of cases and deaths are much lower than reported. Experts refute that and new data suggests that the toll is probably significantly higher than the official count.
Ernst said she, too, is “so skeptical” of the official numbers.
“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?” she said to the crowd on Monday, according to a report by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that the disease has infected more than 6 million people in the U.S. and killed about 185,000 Americans. Of those deaths, 1,125 were reported in Iowa, according to the state website at midday Wednesday.
Asked later what she meant, Ernst said she was repeating what she’s heard.
“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.”
In fact, as many as 215,000 more people than usual died in the U.S. during the first seven months of 2020, suggesting that the number of lives lost to the coronavirus is significantly higher than the official toll, according to an analysis of CDC data by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press.
And half the dead were people of color — Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and, to a marked degree, Asian Americans.
Playing down the severity of the pandemic is a favorite ploy of President Donald Trump, who has said he expects the virus to disappear. And it echoes a conspiracy theory that’s been widely debunked by experts.
In recent tweets, supporters of QAnon misrepresented CDC figures, stating that the government’s health agency had reduced the number of U.S. COVID-19 deaths to just over 9,000. Trump tweeted the false information, which was later taken down by Twitter for violating platform rules.
The CDC data table is based on an analysis of death certificates that mention COVID-19 as a cause. For 6% of the deaths, COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned.
The other 94% list COVID-19 and other conditions together. Among those deaths, there were, on average, 2.6 additional conditions or causes per death, the public health agency said. It is rare for people not to have multiple medical issues at death.
Ernst’s Democratic opponent, Theresa Greenfield, said the incumbent’s remarks were “appalling.”
“We need leaders who will take this seriously,” Greenfield tweeted.
It's appalling for you to say you're "so skeptical" of the toll this pandemic has on our families and communities across Iowa, @joniernst.
— Theresa Greenfield (@GreenfieldIowa) September 2, 2020