In his 2014 book “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” journalist Gabriel Sherman reported that top Fox News executives meet every morning to strategize about how the network can angle its daily coverage to advance the Republican Party’s political agenda.
After first downplaying the threat of the coronavirus, then accusing Democrats of overhyping it to hurt President Trump, then claiming the “cure” of shutting down the economy could be worse than the disease, Fox News’ hosts now seem to be following a new set of marching orders when discussing the deadly pathogen: questioning whether all that many people are really dying from it.
Like each of its predecessors, Fox’s latest pandemic talking point — that the coronavirus death toll could be exaggerated because it includes individuals who had other health issues in addition to COVID-19 — doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
“We’ve made it very clear, every time I’ve been up here, about the comorbidities,” Dr. Deborah Birx, the U.S. coronavirus response coordinator, said Wednesday during the White House coronavirus task force press briefing. “This has been known from the beginning. So 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.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, also made a point to weigh in, cautioning against such “conspiracy theories.”
“They are nothing but distractions,” Fauci said. “Let somebody write a book about it later on. But not now.”
Yet that didn’t stop former Fox News host Brit Hume from appearing on Tucker Carlson’s show Tuesday to speculate that the overall U.S. death toll — by Thursday, more than 14,800 and rising — may be inflated.
“There are lots of people who are asymptomatic who may 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.”
Carlson agreed, adding that “there may be reasons people seek an inaccurate death count” and that “when journalists work with numbers, there sometimes is an agenda.”
As if on cue, Fox anchor Harris Faulkner joined the chorus Wednesday — even though she is a member of the network’s news division, not an opinion host like Carlson or an analyst like Hume.
“The federal government now is classifying all COVID-19 patient deaths as such, regardless of whether any other underlying health issues were a factor,” Faulkner said before playing a clip of Birx confirming that “if someone dies with COVID-19, we are counting that as a COVID-19 death.”
“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?” Faulkner asked.
Despite the furrowed brows on Fox, however, Faulkner’s question isn’t all that hard to answer. According to actual experts, if there’s any problem with the COVID-19 death count, it’s not that it’s too high.
It’s that it’s too low.
The first thing to note is that despite all the innuendo on Fox, there is nothing unusual about the way the media or the government is counting coronavirus deaths. In any crisis — whether it’s a pandemic or a hurricane — people with preexisting conditions will die. The standard for attributing such deaths to the current crisis is determining whether those people would have died when they did even if the current crisis had never happened.
When it comes to the coronavirus, the data is clear: COVID-19 is much more likely to kill you if your system has already been compromised by some other ailment, such as asthma, HIV, diabetes mellitus, chronic lung disease or cardiovascular disease. But that doesn’t mean patients with those health problems would have died this week (or last week, or next month) no matter what. The vast majority of them probably wouldn’t have. COVID-19 was the catalyst — the reason they died now and not later.
Given the potentially large number of asymptomatic cases circulating in the population, it’s possible, as Hume suggested, that some number of people who never got sick from the coronavirus but tested positive and then died from a different underlying cause are being mistakenly counted as COVID-19 deaths. But that number is likely to be vanishingly small, for one simple reason: People who don’t feel sick aren’t getting tested.
Much larger is the number of people who aren’t getting tested even though they have experienced symptoms. And that’s why, contra Fox News, experts say the coronavirus death toll is almost certainly an undercount. As Birx noted, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counts only deaths in which the presence of the coronavirus is confirmed by a test. But as the New York Times reported Sunday, “inconsistent protocols, limited resources and a patchwork of decision making from one state or county to the next” have made it impossible to test every likely coronavirus death. Victims with flulike symptoms in February and early March weren’t tested. Victims in rural areas, where coroners say they don’t have the tools they need to detect the disease, still aren’t being tested. Victims who die at home or in overburdened nursing homes aren’t being tested.
Meanwhile, “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,” the Washington Post reported over the weekend. “In addition, some people who have the virus test negative, experts say.”
“You can’t rely on just the laboratory-confirmed cases,” Marc-Alain Widdowson, an epidemiologist who left the CDC last year and now serves as director of the Institute of Tropical Medicine Antwerp in Belgium, told the Post. “You’re never going to apply the test on everybody who is ill and everybody who dies. So without doubt — it’s a truism — the number of deaths are underestimated globally.”
When adjudicating debates over the data, it’s worth checking both sides’ sources. In the case of the Times, the Post and other mainstream news outlets, these sources include “hospital officials, doctors, public health experts and medical examiners.” Fox News’ sources, on the other hand, appear to be right-wing media figures such as Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin. “People die on this planet every day,” Limbaugh said during an April 2 segment on the “massive speculation” that virus patients may actually be “dying because of other things”; Levin has suggested that “heart failure, heart disease, a heart attack” may account for an “inflated” and “extraordinarily misleading” number of reported COVID-19 fatalities.
“I have suspected this for weeks,” Levin crowed Tuesday on Twitter.
Yet when Faulkner asked her panel Wednesday whether comorbidities were inflating the overall COVID-19 death count, Fox News medical contributor Dr. Janette Nesheiwat said, “I don’t think it’s going to be a huge discrepancy in the data in the end.”
A day earlier, even Trump himself described the death count as “very, very accurate.”
“When you say death counts, I think they’re pretty accurate on the death counts,” Trump said. “The death counts, I think, they are very, very accurate.”
Cover thumbnail photo: Alex Brandon/AP, Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
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