CORONAVIRUS

Iowa doctors say they find Ernst comments doubting COVID-19 counts 'offensive'

Senator said she was skeptical of COVID-19 death count

Sen. Joni Ernst takes part in a Sept. 2 roundtable discussion with representatives from nonprofits in Cedar Rapids. The
Sen. Joni Ernst takes part in a Sept. 2 roundtable discussion with representatives from nonprofits in Cedar Rapids. The Iowa Medical Society is faulting Ernst for her apparent endorsement Aug. 31 of a conspiracy theory that suggests doctors and hospitals are inflecting the number of COVID-19 deaths to gain more federal money. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — An organization that represents 6,000 Iowa physicians, residents and medical students on Thursday took exception — twice — to U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst’s recent skepticism about how hospitals are reporting COVID-19 deaths.

The Iowa Medical Society and Ernst talked last Friday about her comment — made at an Aug. 31 town hall in Black Hawk County — and issued a joint statement Wednesday evening.

The joint statement read, “Let us be clear, it is without doubt that the vast majority of Iowa physicians and clinicians are responding appropriately to COVID-19 and doing so in a manner that is deserving the public trust.”

Ernst and the medical society said they also supported “robust oversights” of the public funds being spent on the virus “to ensure that taxpayer dollars are utilized in the most efficient, effective and appropriate way possible.”

A little more than two hours later, the medical society issued a second, more strongly worded statement after hearing from its members.

Calling Ernst’s statements “offensive,” the group’s leaders emphasized “the danger of furthering mistruths or in any way implying that Iowa physicians would intentionally misreport or misrepresent the data demonstrating the impact of COVID-19 in Iowa communities.”

Conspiracy theory

At the Black Hawk County town meeting, one of the audience members told Ernst he believed COVID-19 deaths were being overcounted. Ernst responded by saying she, too, was “skeptical” of the numbers.

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The man’s statement — and Ernst’s apparent agreement — reflects a conspiracy theory that suggests physicians and hospitals are overcounting COVID-19 deaths in order to receive more federal funding.

The accusation has been repeatedly debunked by fact-checkers and medical health experts.

The Iowa Medical Society in its second statement said Ernst apologized for her comments during their Friday phone call but declined to pledge she’d make a public apology.

“Let us be clear, (the Iowa Medical Society) does not condone the implications that Iowa physicians are intentionally misreporting COVID-19 patient data or in any way seeking to personally benefit from this pandemic,” the second statement continued. “What we do believe is that patient trust and safety is paramount.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds, like Ernst a Republican, said Thursday the COVID-19 death totals reported on Iowa’s public health website are “accurate.”

Democrats respond

The Iowa Democratic Party on Thursday held a virtual news conference, which included a pair of physicians.

“I took offense to Ernst’s accusations against health care providers and the suggestion that we would conspire with hospitals to submit false diagnoses and claims to Medicare, Medicaid or any payer,” said Dr. Glenn Hurst, a rural family medicine provider from Minden and medical director at four nursing homes in Pottawattamie County, where he’s dealt with COVID-19 outbreaks.

Physicians do not get paid by diagnosis and hospitals have “little to no influence” over a physician’s diagnosis, said Hurst, who has donated money to Democratic campaigns in the past three years, according to state records.

Dr. Christine Petersen, director of the University of Iowa’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases, said when COVID-19 diagnoses also include other conditions, that’s not a sign of foul play, but rather a reflection that humans often have multiple medical conditions.

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“To say that we’re somehow increasing the number in the COVID column by not calling it these other things is just trying to say that as people we live very simple lives and you only ever get exposed to one thing. Which just isn’t the way life happens,” Petersen said.

“Life is messy, and usually if you’ve got one problem, it spirals on itself to snowball into a bunch of problems. And that’s really what we see here.”

Comments: (563) 333-2659; erin.murphy@lee.net

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