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Dissecting Laura Ingraham’s attempt to gin up a mystery around coronavirus in New York

Laura Ingraham speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in 2016. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

You have to give Laura Ingraham credit for how she structured her defense of President Trump on Tuesday evening. Her years of practice in crafting arguments compelling to her audience were obvious in how she walked Fox News viewers through an “I'm just asking questions” assessment of the effects of the novel coronavirus in New York. That her arguments were facile at best was beside the point, as is often the case.

She began by establishing her own credentials for the task.

“We are asking questions,” she said at the outset. “We’re doing the digging that old-time real journalists used to do. You know, in the olden days before Obama worship and Trump demonization became their 24/7 focus.”

The thrust of those questions: supporting the idea of scaling back social distancing measures, as red-state governors have.

“Tonight, I’m speaking to you as a mom, as a friend, as an American,” Ingraham said. “And I say it’s just time that we take back control over our own lives.”

Why? Because we have weathered past pandemics without closing businesses and implementing restrictions like stay-at-home orders. And as proof that all of this is unwarranted, Ingraham pointed to … the flu.

She spent an extended segment walking through maps and figures that she argued showed how the “horrific flu season” that New York had been experiencing had suddenly — and, she suggested, suspiciously — evaporated as cases of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, spiked.

Here is how she described the change in flu cases as documented by the state Department of Health.

“There was a really weird drop-off,” Ingraham said. “We’ve been trying to figure this out. Maybe some of you can help us. Week 12 in the flu-counting weeks. It’s kind of weird; they start at the end of August, and they go through the following August. But week 12. It’s, like, about the end of March. There were 3,336 cases. All right? Influenza cases in New York.”

“But week 13, the number dropped to 764 cases. That’s down more than 77 percent,” she said. “Week 14 dropped to 193 cases. Week 15, dropped to 143 cases. The entire state of New York! Huh.”

After a bit more of this, she reached her point.

“We certainly do not wish to think that influenza deaths and this horrible flu season in New York are being logged incorrectly as covid deaths,” Ingraham said. “We don’t want to think that; that would erode the public’s trust in the ‘experts.’ We can ask questions. We can say, are people dying at home with covid, or are they dying at home with the regular flu, but they’re fearful of going to a hospital? Are those cases being logged at all? We may never know.”

Okay. So let’s start by looking at what the numbers show and how to understand them.

No, actually, let’s start by pointing out that it isn’t “kind of weird” that the state logs flu cases on an August-to-August time frame. That’s because the flu is seasonal, spiking and fading during the winter. That’s important later on, so we might as well note it now.

Anyway, a look at the numbers. Here’s how the flu season evolved on three metrics: cases by week, percentage change from the prior week and raw change from the prior week (in other words, the increase or drop in the number of cases).

Ingraham is focused on the area shaded in orange.

She didn’t show the data like this, of course, instead showing statewide maps in the downward trend of flu saturation and highlighting those percentage-point changes. (The on-screen text as she did so? “A deeper look into the covid-19 numbers.”) By looking at the data in this way, though, two things become clear.

The first is that she’s focused on the tail end of an obvious downward trend. The second is that those large percentage-point drops are from relatively low numbers of cases. It’s a much smaller drop when you fall 77 percentage points from 3,336, of course, than it is from the peak cases this year, 17,233 in the sixth week of the year. The biggest drop in the actual number of cases was from week seven to week eight — in late February.

Ingraham said she reached out to the state about the numbers and they “tried to tell us that drops like this are normal.” Well, they tried to tell her that because they are. Here’s how the evolution of this flu season compares with the seasons of 2017–2018 and 2018–2019.

Incidentally, while Ingraham repeatedly claimed that this was a particularly “horrific” flu season and “one of the worst on record,” the peak number of cases in 2017–2018 was even higher. At one point, she tried to accentuate how bad this flu season was — in order to make the drop seem more dramatic — by comparing the number of cases in the first week of January this year to last year: 10,076 versus 3,736. She chose not to compare the seventh week of this year to the seventh week two years ago, when there were 18,258 cases compared to 14,263 this year. It’s just cherry-picking, which, at its heart, simply shows that the flu season peaked earlier this year than in the past two.

Again, the point is that the trends this year don’t seem exceptional when actually compared to the past two seasons. Yes, those percentage-point drops of more than 70 percent are unusual relative to the past two seasons, but, then, that massive week-over-week drop of more than 7,200 cases in the 2017–2018 season was also unusual. We can safely assume it wasn’t a function of misreported covid cases.

All of this is beside the point. We can more effectively consider the oddness of Ingraham’s case by simply comparing the number of weekly confirmed coronavirus cases with the number of flu cases in the state.

You’ll note that we flagged the implementation of a statewide stay-at-home order on there, and we also highlighted the two-week period that followed. Those two weeks are important because they mark the understood duration during which people show covid-19 symptoms. New infections will continue to show for two weeks after a shelter-at-home order is implemented, as those who contracted the virus immediately before the order realize they’re infected. From two weeks on, the number of cases should fall — as they did in New York.

In other words, the evidence at hand indicates that the stay-at-home order worked to contain the virus.

Ingraham actually waves this away, noting that the 77-point drop in flu cases correlates to the implementation of the order, but suggesting that the order “may have convinced people to stay home, but we don’t know that, and neither do state health officials.” She added, “Epidemiologists will probably be debating this for years.”

Maybe, but her “old-time digging” didn’t look at the actual covid-19 cases. It’s hard to tell the effect on flu cases in part because the flu season was already almost over when the stay-at-home order took effect.

From a rhetorical perspective, Ingraham needs to diminish the effect of the stay-at-home order to bolster the argument that we should quickly restore economic activity to normal levels.

“Remember, even when early on we were warned that this flu season was going to be particularly deadly, we didn’t pull kids from schools. Remember, we played those clips for you last night. People were warning about this is going to be one of the worst on record. But still, we didn’t require people to wear masks on planes or in grocery stores, and we didn’t decide to ruin our economy,” Ingraham said. “But then covid hit. And it was like this flu season we were hearing about [that was] going to be so horrific never even happened at all. The media never talked about it. And even our infectious-disease specialists didn’t really address it as time went on. Why? I think we need answers so we can move forward with a full understanding of what actually happened here and how deadly covid really was.”

This is, to put it bluntly, nonsense. While it is the case that we accept a certain number of flu cases and deaths that are preventable, we also have systems in place that already contain the flu’s spread. We have vaccinations. We have people with immunity. We should, in fact, wash our hands more during flu season than we do and be more careful about our own exposure. But because there are containment systems, that’s less urgent than it was for the coronavirus, for which no vaccine and no immunity existed when it arrived.

That’s why covid-19 cases spiked so fast in New York. And that spike is why the exceptional measures were necessary. The reason the media and infectious-disease experts didn’t focus on the flu season before the arrival of the coronavirus — beyond standard seasonal warnings about getting flu shots — is that the flu season wasn’t all that exceptional.

The arrival of a highly contagious virus that is deadlier than the flu (which The Post explained a few hours before Ingraham’s show) meant a sudden need for dramatic action.

There’s a valid discussion to be had over when and how to scale back social distancing metrics. But Ingraham’s effort to use run-of-the-mill flu numbers to hint at the possibility of a conspiracy as she pursues her goal of a return to normal is as irresponsible as her repeated hyping of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the virus. There’s nothing suspicious about the flu data, as Ingraham was told by actual experts who have done years of “digging” into how the seasonal flu works.

Nonetheless, she wanted to ask some questions. And she deferred to the viewers she was supposedly informing to “help us” solve the nonexistent mystery she had created.

A rhetorical master class, if nothing else.

As deaths in the United States of covid-19 rise, some have started to question the official death count. But the death toll is most likely undercounted. (Video: The Washington Post)