Hospitals Likely Underreporting COVID-19 Deaths, Despite Conspiracy Theories

With the COVID-19 Pandemic continuing extensive lockdowns across the United States and causing immense damage to the national economy, with as many as 81,000 Americans dead and 14.7% of the population unemployed, it is important to examine the true cost of this virus on the lives of the American people. In addition to the physical health toll on the victims of the pandemic, the emotional toll is massive, with reports indicating a stunning rise in depression and anxiety related to COVID-19 among all age groups. While the nation is handling the crisis with stride, states taking up the responsibilities in combating the virus after the federal government dropped the ball on testing and consistent leadership, conspiracy theories have unfortunately spread regarding COVID-19. Although the origins of the virus have been subject to multiple theories, some legitimate and others not, the newest and perhaps most dangerous is that hospitals and healthcare professionals are lying to the public by exaggerating the reported death toll from COVID-19. Despite there being a lack of evidence for this phenomena, and new reporting stating that the death toll is likely higher than reported, these claims are dangerous as they foster mistrust towards medical professionals, physicians, scientists, working to end the pandemic globally and in the United States. Instead of uniting the American people behind a common cause, the perpetrators of this conspiracy theory are merely further dividing the public in the greatest crisis this country has faced since the Second World War. Through evidence contrary to the claims of this conspiracy theory, it is made clear that the danger of COVID-19 goes beyond the scope of the virus.

One of the clearest instances of this conspiracy theory being spread occurred on April 8, when Minnesota State Senator Scott Jensen, a physician, was interviewed by Laura Ingraham on Fox News, where he said that there was the potential that deaths could be misreported, and spoke of how the intersection of money and the medical profession can sometimes be murky. This interview almost immediately sparked a series of conspiracy theories on right-wing media sites that medical professionals were falsifying hundreds if not thousands of reported cases or deaths for more money, and that politicians were using the crisis to destroy the economy. Memes were spread exaggerating even the most egregious theories, some even speculating that COVID-19 was not even a serious danger to people. One theory even claimed that this could be backed up by fewer people appearing at hospitals for heart attacks or strokes, which The New York Times noted was most likely due to fears of going to the hospital for a non-coronavirus issue and catching the virus while there. Right-wing media figures such as Laura Ingraham, Candace Owens, and others have jumped on this theory.

The spread of this conspiracy theory could cause a great deal of harm in combatting COVID-19. It could lead to mistrust towards physicians, medical professionals, and scientists, while commonsense actions such as stay-in-place orders, wearing a mask in public, and social distancing could be ignored. In fact, it is more likely that the death rate is underreported. The Miami Herald stated on May 11 that New York City potentially underreported the death toll by at least 5,000, with probable cases on the rise, meaning people who displayed COVID-19 style symptoms but were not tested, people to died at home, and people who died prior to widespread testing who displayed symptoms that at the time were reported as pneumonia. Complicating things is the fact that initially only hospital deaths were reported. This means that as we enter the third month of handing COVID-19, it is extremely likely that the true number is much higher than the reported 81,000, and that contrary to conspiracy theories, deaths are underreported, not overreported. This, as well as the widespread false belief of hospitals falsifying records, could hamper the response to the virus.

The simple truth is that it is extremely unlikely that the numbers are being exaggerated. State Senator Scott Jensen, whose interview with Laura Ingraham on April 8 truly brought this conspiracy theory to the fore, even later admitted that he did not think that hospitals were exaggerating their numbers. While it is true that hospitals do receive additional Medicare payments for patients who have died of COVID-19, FactCheck states that the income to be gained from potential false reporting is minimal. One source even noted that such a massive breach of the Hippocratic Oath within the medical community is extremely unlikely, and even insulting to medical professionals. Instead, a speedy reopening of the country would likely financially benefit hospitals more, as it would allow for elective surgeries to be held which are more financially impactful. Rather than embarking on a widespread conspiracy to generate more income, hospitals are likely more concerned with taking care of their patients and ensuring fewer COVID-19 deaths. Instead, we need to believe public health officials such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Deborah Birx, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and other experts in dealing with COVID-19 and work to end the threat of the disease. Social distancing staying home is necessary for dealing with this pandemic, as are other basic steps such as wearing a mask in public, washing hands regularly, and limiting contact with people who live outside of your home. Only through these steps can we keep the death and infection rate low, and survive this crisis. In listening to conspiracy theories, we risk slipping on these requirements and extending the pandemic.

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