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Iowa Sen. Ernst suggests COVID-19 deaths inflated, later issues clarification

The Republican lawmaker's comments echoed a baseless conspiracy about the virus. Her state is a pandemic hot spot.
Image: Joni Ernst
Senator Joni Ernst speaks at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington on Aug. 4, 2020.Michael Brochstein / Sipa USA via AP file

WASHINGTON — 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.”

Later Wednesday, Ernst said in a statement, “Over 180,000 Americans have died because of covid-19,” adding that “what matters” is that Iowa gets the resources it needs.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force report from Sunday said Iowa had the highest rate of new cases per 100,000 population at 100, and the state has the fifth-highest positivity rate in the country. That’s the percentage of those tested getting positive results.

The state has a 14-day average positivity rate of 11%. The task force recommended closing bars in 61 counties, limiting gatherings to 10 or less in 28 counties, requiring masks statewide and testing all college students.

Nationally, 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.