President Donald Trump's allies are openly questioning the coronavirus death toll, although most evidence suggests the real number is much higher.
Fox News has mainstreamed a conspiracy theory that medical experts were manipulating the numbers to hurt the president's re-election chances, and doctors fear those suspicions will make the outbreak even worse because Trump's supporters will stop following social distancing measures, reported Politico.
“By diminishing the fatality and the overall burden of mortality with Covid-19, what people are trying to do is diminish the gravity of the situation for whatever agenda,” said Dr. Felipe Lobelo, a former officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “That will lead to relaxing of public health measures, or lack of funding for contact tracing, which is critical or testing, or all the things that we need to do in order to keep the virus at bay.”
The conspiracy theory rests on the generalized suspicion of mainstream media reports by many conservatives, who point to the fact that suspected, but unconfirmed, coronavirus deaths are being reported among the initial totals.
“The danger is to have a misrepresentation of how lethal the virus is,” Lobelo explained.
But conservatives point to any discrepancies in the data -- such as lagging counts from official death certificates -- to spin conspiracy theories aimed at protecting the president from criticism.
“Not only does this prove that the Chinese virus is not nearly as deadly as originally believed, but it also most likely confirms that many of the deaths previously attributed to the Coronavirus were actually caused by other underlying factors, such as pre-existing conditions, or even deaths falsely attributed to the virus when said victims were not proven to have had the virus in the first place,” wrote former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka on his website America First.
Fox News hosts have fanned those suspicions by casting doubt on the projections and models that governors and other officials are relying on to determine when their states can reopen.
“One thing is pretty certain," said “Fox & Friends“ host Brian Kilmeade said on Tuesday, "the models that we have been told to deal with have consistently been wrong, on the plus side and the negative side.”
Prime-time host Laura Ingraham cast doubt on a recently revised model developed by University of Washington researchers, who projected last month the outbreak would kill 66,000 by Aug. 4 -- which the U.S. has already blown past.
“If you’re not confused yet, now they’re saying that 120,000 [to] 134,000 could die from Covid by August,” she said. “What? That’s double what they were saying a few weeks ago.”
The president himself has been publicly sowing doubts about the statistical models, some of which have been revised upwards as some states relax social distancing guidelines.
“First of all, these models have been so wrong from day one," Trump told ABC News on Sunday night. "Both on the low side and the upside. They've been so wrong, they've been so out of whack. We can be in place, work in place, and also mitigate. We've done it right, but now we have to get back to work.”
Trump has privately been promoting a right-wing conspiracy theory that hospitals were purposefully -- and fraudulently -- inflating the death toll in order to receive additional Medicare funding, a view that is reportedly shared by other administration officials.
But researchers say the confusion and frustration stems from the public's lack of understanding of how science and data unfold in real time.
“The scientists are used to uncertainty because that's how we operate," Lobelo said. "That's part of the scientific premise of trial and error until you have a better understanding of the complex issue. But for regular day-to-day people, uncertainty is more difficult to tolerate.”