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Trump’s latest defense on Covid-19 is a false attack on health care workers

Trump says doctors are overcounting Covid-19 deaths. In reality, the death toll is probably an undercount.

President Trump addresses supporters at a campaign rally on November 1, 2020, in the metro Detroit area in Michigan.
John Moore/Getty Images

Jason Miller, a senior campaign adviser to President Donald Trump, defended the president’s attacks on frontline health care workers on ABC’s This Week Sunday — and refused to repudiate Trump’s false claims about Covid-19 deaths.

Recently on the campaign trail — like when Trump took the stage at a rally in Waterford Township, Michigan, near Detroit on Friday — the president has pushed a baseless conspiracy theory that “our doctors get more money if someone dies from Covid,” and that they are inflating the Covid-19 death toll because of this.

There is, of course, no evidence for either part of that theory — either that Covid-19 deaths are being overcounted in the US, or that medical workers are doing so to profit from a pandemic that has, as of November 1, killed more than 230,000 people in the US.

But when This Week host George Stephanopoulos asked Miller point-blank about the attacks, Miller denied that Trump has said what he said. He refused to say whether he thought “doctors are inflating Covid deaths for money,” and incorrectly claimed there was evidence to back up Trump’s falsehood, before finally pivoting to the subject of tax cuts, leaving Stephanopoulos’s question unanswered.

The attack on doctors is not a new line for Trump. Late last month at a rally in Waukesha, Wisconsin, he trotted out a similar line, telling supporters that “doctors get more money and hospitals get more money” for reporting patients with other comorbidities who die of Covid-19 as coronavirus deaths.

Trump’s comments Friday were quickly condemned by the American Medical Association. In a statement, AMA president Susan Bailey said, “The suggestion that doctors — in the midst of a public health crisis — are overcounting COVID-19 patients or lying to line their pockets is a malicious, outrageous, and completely misguided charge.”

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden also condemned the remarks at an event in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Friday.

“Doctors and nurses go to work every day to save lives,” Biden said. “They do their jobs. Donald Trump should stop attacking them and do his job.”

The real toll of Covid-19 is likely greater than is known

Not only are doctors very much not overcounting US coronavirus deaths, but there’s good evidence that the current death toll — which stands at about 230,000 and is climbing steadily upward as the country enters a third wave — is actually an undercount of the virus’s true cost.

A recent preprint study by the University of Pennsylvania, Boston University, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, released on October 2, analyzes “excess deaths” — the number of deaths beyond what could be expected in a normal year — to get a more accurate picture of the pandemic’s toll.

According to Boston University professor of global health Andrew Stokes, the study’s lead author, “excess deaths can provide a more robust measure of the total mortality effects of the pandemic compared to direct tallies of COVID deaths. Excess deaths include COVID deaths that were ascribed to other causes, as well as the indirect consequences of the pandemic on society.”

The study concluded that US Covid-19 deaths may well be underestimated by about 36 percent — and that’s not an especially controversial assessment. An even more recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the US had suffered nearly 300,000 excess deaths over the course of the pandemic.

Some of those deaths are, of course, part of the reported death toll, which stood at about 221,000 when the study was published. But while the rest of those 300,000 “excess deaths” may not have been directly caused by Covid-19, they “would not have occurred if not for the virus,” according to the New York Times.

The CDC study also found that excess death figures for people of color are markedly higher than those for white Americans.

That’s not exactly a new finding: There has long been evidence that Black Americans, as well as other people of color, have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. As Vox’s Dylan Scott and Christina Animashaun wrote in early October,

All of America’s minorities, with the exception of Asian Americans, have seen worse outcomes than white people during the coronavirus pandemic. But Black Americans have fared worst of all, with about 1 in every 1,000 Black Americans dying from Covid-19 since February. That is about 40,000 people who have lost their lives. For their share of the US population, Black people are dying in the pandemic at twice the rate of white Americans, of whom about 1 in every 2,150 people has died.

Despite hundreds of thousands of dead Americans, however, the Trump administration is increasingly signaling its wholesale surrender to the pandemic. Last weekend, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told CNN’s Jake Tapper that “we are not going to control the pandemic,” and Trump has matched those words with action this week, holding a rapid-fire string of rallies that are almost certainly spreading the virus further.

And in the closing days of a reelection campaign that most polls suggest he is poised to lose, Trump has also spent an inordinate amount of downplaying the very virus that hospitalized him last month.

“We’re rounding the corner,” he said at the same Friday rally where he attacked health care professionals. “This was China’s fault. Just remember it.”

The same day, the US broke a world record: 98,859 new Covid-19 cases in a single day.

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