These wild right-wing talking points about coronavirus deaths are actually totally backwards
Laura Ingraham speaking at the Values Voter Summit, photo by Gage Skidmore.

While Fox News host Laura Ingraham and other far-right pundits have claimed that the coronavirus death tolls being reported in the mainstream media are inflated, others argue — much more plausibly — that they are, in fact, artificially low. This is because, experts explain, the current numbers don’t take into account people who are dying in their homes rather than in hospitals and undiagnosed with the disease.

Articles published in the New York Times and the Washington Post this week explain why one should be wary of any reporting that describes coronavirus death tolls as inflated or exaggerated.

On her Fox News show, “The Ingraham Angle,” Ingraham asked her audience, “Are coronavirus deaths being conflated with what was already a horrific flu and pneumonia season in the United States?..... There are a lot of questions that remain.” But the Times’ article shows why initial reports of coronavirus-related deaths might be too low.

In the Times, reporters Josh Katz, Denise Lu and Margot Sanger-Katz examine coronavirus-related deaths in seven different states: New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland and Colorado. The journalists report that according to new figures released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the total deaths in those states are “nearly 50% higher than normal for the five weeks from March 8 through April 11” — which, they note, is “9000 more deaths than were reported as of April 11 in official counts of deaths from the coronavirus.”

However, Katz, Lu and Sanger-Katz point out that the CDC numbers “are preliminary because death certificates take time to be processed and collected, and complete death tallies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can take up to eight weeks to become final.”

And, of course, COVID-19 has continued to kill long since April 11.

One of the things that can make coronavirus death counts artificially low, according to the Times reporters, is an insufficient amount of testing.

“Tests for the illness can be hard to get, and not all who die now are being tested —  particularly if they die outside a hospital,” the Times reporters explain. “New York City recently revised its own statistics for the number of coronavirus-related fatalities, saying thousands of additional deaths were probably because of COVID-19, even though no tests had been conducted.”

On Wednesday afternoon, researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore reported a worldwide coronavirus death toll of 224,708 — which included 59,446 people in the United States. But various factors, medical experts have been saying, can make coronavirus death figures for the U.S. too low — from deaths at home to an inadequate amount of testing. People who have died from coronavirus outside of a hospital weren’t necessarily tested for it before they died.

Some skeptics have also jumped on preliminary reports that the mortality rate from COVID-19 may be much lower than is commonly accepted, which could indicate that the crisis will be over sooner than we think. But in the Washington Post, four medical experts — George Q. Daley and Michael Springer of Harvard Medical School, Galit Alter of Massachusetts General Hospital and Stephen Elledge of Brigham and Women’s Hospital — examined two recent California studies that “seem to suggest that the virus is much less deadly than many previously thought." They point out that the studies “haven’t been vetted and should be recognized as such.”

“The two studies, conducted in Santa Clara and Los Angeles Counties, provide a cautionary tale,” the medical experts explain. “The results suggest the number of people unknowingly infected may be 50- to 85-fold greater than previously suspected. If true, this rate of infection would imply a significantly lower mortality rate — around 0.12 to 0.2%, similar to the flu. That would be great news, but until proved otherwise, these findings should be treated as preliminary at best. Here’s why: neither of the two studies has been peer-reviewed.”

The Santa Clara and L.A. studies — according to Daley, Springer, Alter and Elledge — raise “several concerns about their methodologies.”

“First, both studies used a commercial diagnostic test known to yield false positive results, detecting the presence of antibodies to the virus where there were none,” the medical experts note. “The researchers, relying on a small set of control tests mostly performed by the tests’ manufacturer, claim a false positive rate of 0.5%, but independent analyses of the same test have yielded much higher false positive rates that could render their conclusions invalid.”

They add, “Second, in one of the studies, researchers used Facebook to recruit volunteers. This raises concerns of self-selection bias, as these individuals made the effort to leave their homes and drive to a designated location for a blood test and thus, might be motivated to seek testing for various reasons — including recent symptoms or engaging in high-risk activities that boost their risk for infection. For this reason alone, one might expect a misleading higher rate of positive tests.”