Guest Columnist

Sen. Ernst's conspiracy theories endanger Iowans

Sen. Joni Ernst responds to a comment at a roundtable discussion between Senators Ernst and Chuck Grassley with leaders
Sen. Joni Ernst responds to a comment at a roundtable discussion between Senators Ernst and Chuck Grassley with leaders from local nonprofits and grassroots organizations at the Kirkwood Hotel in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. Local organization leaders described unmet needs within the community following the August 10 derecho, which they say has affected some parts of the local community more than others—especially people of color and low income families and individuals. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

The lasting health impacts of COVID-19 on those who’ve been sickened by it must never be underestimated or overlooked. As a neurologist, I’ve seen that COVID-19 can harm the nervous system, causing impaired consciousness, headaches, strokes and more, yet, there’s much to learn about who is impacted, for how long, and exactly why.

What is without doubt, however, is that COVID-19 can be deadly for many, and has taken at least 180,000 American lives, if not more. The fact that Sen. Joni Ernst has embraced conspiracy theories suggesting otherwise should be concerning not just to doctors but to all Iowans.

You may have seen one of these theories on social media: It tries to make the number of COVID-19-related deaths reported look overblown by pointing out that just 6 percent of the death certificates list only COVID-19 for cause of death, while the other 94 percent list COVID-19 together with other causes. President Donald Trump retweeted one of the tweets promoting this false claim, many of which were removed for spreading inaccurate information.

Joni Ernst is so skeptical, except when we need her to be

Comorbidities such as pneumonia and acute respiratory failure often stem from COVID-19. In some cases, COVID-19 exacerbates underlying health issues. The fact remains that COVID-19 caused these deaths. What is important to remember is that COVID-19 causes or worsens those health problems that ultimately lead to death.

Over 1,100 Iowans have died from COVID-19, so it would seem unbelievable to hear our U.S. senator sow doubt about their deaths. But that’s exactly what Sen. Ernst did at a campaign event, when an attendee said he believed deaths were being overcounted, and Sen. Ernst agreed that she was “so skeptical” of the reported numbers. She raised her conspiracy game up a notch when she implied that, because health care providers are reimbursed for COVID-19 costs, they may be inflating numbers for financial gain.

Of course, as a health care professional, I find such an assault on my profession and character from our representative despicable, but that’s not my main concern. What worries me most about this promotion of disinformation by a public figure is the further harm it could cause to Iowans and our families. Cases are increasing across our state, so much so that Iowa recently had the highest case rate in the U.S. If Iowans who trust Sen. Ernst are led to believe COVID-19 and the other awful health issues it causes can’t kill them, they may be less likely to take precautions to keep themselves and others safe. They may refuse to wear a mask, putting the lives of those around them at risk.

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To put it bluntly, Sen. Ernst’s conspiracy theories are dangerous to the residents of our state. We must do more than just ignore her disinformation. We must reject them by pushing back, hard.

Dr. Selden Spencer is a neurologist in Ames and a member of the Committee to Protect Medicare.

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