Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst appears to have backtracked on her suggestion that fewer people have died of Covid-19 than official health reports suggest, following criticism of her remarks.
Ernst, a Republican facing a tough reelection this year, baselessly raised skepticism that US coronavirus deaths are being overcounted, peddling a false conspiracy theory that’s been refuted by health officials, as cases of coronavirus climb in Iowa.
She made the comments at a campaign event Monday in Waterloo, Iowa, when she told a crowd she is “so skeptical” of official Covid-19 data. She was responding to a man in the crowd who said he believed the theory that coronavirus cases and deaths had been overcounted, according to an account of the exchange by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.
The assertion that Covid-19 cases are overcounted has been debunked by US health officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“The numbers that you’ve been hearing, the 180,000-plus deaths, are real deaths from Covid-19,” Fauci told ABC’s Good Morning America on Tuesday. Many medical experts have insisted the Covid-19 death toll is actually being undercounted.
When CNN asked Ernst’s staff Wednesday to clarify the senator’s views, Ernst issued a statement that did not specifically retract her comments from Monday but that did acknowledge the latest coronavirus death toll as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and US health officials.
“Over 180,000 Americans have died because of COVID-19,” Ernst said. “What matters is that we are getting the resources to Iowa that are needed to fight this virus and continuing to support our health care workers on the front lines, and that’s what I’m focused on.”
At the same event in Black Hawk County, the senator also threw out a serious charge against medical professionals – suggesting they are fraudulently inflating the numbers of coronavirus patients in order to make more money. There is no evidence to suggest this, and health care professionals have strongly denied the baseless attack.
“These health care providers and others are reimbursed at a higher rate if Covid is tied to it, so what do you think they’re doing?” she asked the crowd, according to the Courier.
Following the event, Ernst clarified to the Courier she did not seem to know for a fact that health care providers were doing this, but it’s something she “heard on the news” as well as from “health care providers and others.”
Ernst’s office didn’t immediately reply to CNN’s request for comment about her suggestion about reimbursements.
But when asked if that was the motive and if she thought the numbers were inflated because of the higher reimbursements, she told the Courier: “That I’m not sure, and again that’s why I want somebody to really go back and do a good fact check on this and I don’t have the means to do that … but I do think that should be discussed because I heard the same thing on the news you know traveling across the state today.”
She added: “They’re thinking there may be 10,000 or less deaths that were actually singularly Covid-19. Now, no doubt that there are deaths and it creates complications with those that have other illnesses certainly, but those just attributable to Covid-19, I’m just really curious. It would be interesting to know that.”
The CDC confirmed that deaths counted as coronavirus deaths are truly deaths caused by Covid-19.
“In 92% of all deaths that mention COVID-19, COVID-19 is listed as the underlying cause of death,” the CDC said in a statement sent to CNN. Death certificates usually list other, underlying conditions that people had when they died, including high blood pressure.
Dr. Glenn Hurst, a family medicine doctor and chair of the Iowa Democratic Party rural caucus, called Ernst’s remarks “incredibly offensive” in an interview with CNN’s Brianna Keiler on Wednesday.
“It’s an offensive attack on some of the best Iowans out there on the front lines,” Hurst told CNN.
Just one day before the event, Twitter removed a tweet containing a similar false claim about coronavirus death statistics made by a supporter of the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory, which President Donald Trump retweeted.
The White House coronavirus task force report sent to Iowa officials this week included a warning to take precautions, like instituting a mask mandate and closing down bars, as Iowa currently has the highest rate of cases in the US, which increased by 77.4% from the previous week.
CNN’s Ted Barrett, Betsy Klein, Daniel Dale and Jamie Gumbrecht contributed to this report.