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Birx and Fauci reject Fox News-promoted theory that coronavirus deaths are inflated

This post has been updated with Birx’s and Fauci’s comments.

From the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, President Trump’s allies in the media have downplayed the threat. And as the death toll climbs, some of them — particularly on Fox News — are launching into a new argument: that deaths caused by the novel coronavirus might be inflated.

But the evidence and logic they offer are faulty. There are plenty of reasons to believe that the coronavirus death toll is actually being significantly undercounted, in fact, rather than overcounted. And the lead medical experts on Trump’s coronavirus task force on Wednesday night rejected the theory.

Tuesday night on Fox News, Tucker Carlson and analyst Brit Hume argued that the death toll may be exaggerated because people who are dying of other causes but have the coronavirus are being classified as coronavirus deaths.

Carlson cited weekly data on pneumonia deaths from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, describing the drop in deaths as suspicious. He suggested that some people who are actually dying of pneumonia might incorrectly be logged as dying of the disease caused by the coronavirus, covid-19.

“For the last few weeks, that [pneumonia] number has come in far lower than at the same moment in previous years. How could that be?” Carlson asked. “Well, it seems entirely possible that doctors are classifying conventional pneumonia deaths as covid-19 deaths. That would mean this epidemic is being credited for thousands of deaths that would have occurred if the virus never appeared here.”

Charts using this CDC data have been circulating on social media, too, in service of the same argument. The actual data, though, don’t bear it out.

Over the month of March 2020, many Fox News anchors and personalities went from doubting the seriousness of coronavirus to calling it a public health crisis. (Video: The Washington Post)

The most recent CDC data shows that the number of pneumonia deaths are lower these past few weeks than they have been during a similar period in previous years. The numbers have been between 3,200 and 3,500 per week since the coronavirus arrived in the United States in January. (The most recent week shows 2,930, but with 84 percent of expected deaths reported, meaning that number should rise.) Generally in this period, the numbers are between 3,500 and 4,500.

But the CDC says these data are generally incomplete, even for months. A study of 2015′s data showed that “mortality data is approximately 27% complete within 2 weeks, 54% complete within 4 weeks, and at least 75% complete within 8 weeks of when the death occurred.”

As you look closely, you’ll notice the dates of these data. The last week for which we have any data is the week that ended March 21. Why is that March 21 date important? By that point, the United States had logged just 385 deaths from the coronavirus. There’s no way “thousands” of pneumonia deaths were being wrongly classified as deaths from the coronavirus because there weren’t even 1,000 coronavirus deaths logged, period.

Hume has been a proponent of a similar argument, suggesting that people who are dying of other conditions who also happen to have the coronavirus are all being classified wrongly as coronavirus deaths. On Carlson’s show, he pointed to a quote from Deborah Birx at Tuesday’s briefing.

Birx, who serves on the White House’s coronavirus task force, said: “If someone dies with covid-19, we are counting that as a covid-19 death.”

Hume argued to Carlson that this bolsters his argument. He noted his doctor told him that people who have prostate cancer often have the condition when they die but actually die of something else.

“Particularly, there are lots of people who are asymptomatic, and they have other terrible diseases,” Hume said. “And if everybody is being automatically classified, if they’re found to have covid-19, as a covid-19 death, we’re going to get a very large number of deaths that way, and we’re probably not going to have an accurate count of what the real death total is.”

Hume has offered similar arguments on social media.

The problem with Hume’s prostate cancer comparison is that prostate cancer, unlike viruses, occurs over a long time. It’s logical that a large number of people who have prostate cancer will die with it rather than of it — because they will have a lot of time to contract other deadly ailments. With the coronavirus, the odds that any large number of people who have it are dying in the brief period in which they contract it, but in which the virus itself isn’t a cause, is highly illogical.

Much more logical is that they had conditions that were exacerbated by just such a respiratory disease, which is something health officials have been saying for months. If someone has had a lung ailment for years, for example, and suddenly dies within a week of getting the coronavirus, what are the odds that they would have died during that specific week without contracting the virus? Slim. There may be some such cases, but it’s not something that would account for any significant overcount — let alone the “thousands” Carlson cited.

This argument also appeared Wednesday afternoon on Fox, via host Harris Faulkner. She played Birx’s comment and asked, “How many of those people had other health risks at play, though, and maybe it wasn’t in fact covid-19 that caused their death?” A Fox News medical contributor responded by saying, “I don’t think it’s going to be a significant difference.”

Add another doctor who has now rejected this theory: Birx. She was asked about it at Wednesday’s briefing and referenced the point above about how the coronavirus exacerbates existing conditions.

Those individuals will have an underlying condition, but that underlying condition did not cause their acute death when it’s related to a covid infection,” Birx said. “In fact, it’s the opposite.”

The other lead medical expert on the task force, Anthony S. Fauci, also made a point to weigh in, warning against such “conspiracy theories.”

“You will always have conspiracy theories when you have a very challenging public health crisis. They are nothing but distractions,” he said, adding: “Let somebody write a book about it later on. But not now.”

As has been widely reported, more convincing evidence suggests cases could be undercounted rather than overcounted. That’s because testing is still a problem in many areas of the country, and there may be a significant number of people who die of the disease but have not been diagnosed with it.

As The Washington Post’s Emma Brown, Beth Reinhard and Aaron C. Davis reported over the weekend:

The fast-spreading novel coronavirus is almost certainly killing Americans who are not included in the nation’s growing death toll, according to public health experts and government officials involved in the tally.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counts only deaths in which the presence of the coronavirus is confirmed in a laboratory test. “We know that it is an underestimation,” agency spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said.
A widespread lack of access to testing in the early weeks of the U.S. outbreak means people with respiratory illnesses died without being counted, epidemiologists say. Even now, some people who die at home or in overburdened nursing homes are not being tested, according to funeral directors, medical examiners and nursing home representatives.
Postmortem testing by medical examiners varies widely across the country, and some officials say testing the dead is a misuse of scarce resources that could be used on the living. In addition, some people who have the virus test negative, experts say.

Finally, we have what Trump said Tuesday: Even as some of his allies were playing up the idea that coronavirus death counts are being exaggerated, Trump insisted they are “very, very accurate.”

“When you say death counts, I think they’re pretty accurate on the death counts,” Trump said. “Somebody dies, I think the states have been pretty accurate.”

The question, though, was about whether coronavirus deaths might be undercounted. As the total grows and Trump views it as a referendum on his response to the crisis, it’s not difficult to see him adopting the argument that it is actually overcounted. He’ll need better arguments than the ones offered so far.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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