Fauci dismisses 'conspiracy theory' of overstated US Covid-19 death toll

Oliver Milman in New York
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious diseases expert, has warned that baseless “conspiracy theories” are swirling around the coronavirus crisis following claims that America’s official death toll from Covid-19 has been overstated.

Related: Coronavirus US news: New York breaks its record for largest single-day Covid-19 death toll

Fauci, who has been director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, said he had seen unfounded conjecture attach itself to previous crises and dismissed the emerging idea, largely promoted by high-profile figures in rightwing media, that the US’s Covid-19 death toll is being inflated by unrelated medical conditions.

“There is absolutely no evidence that that’s the case at all,” Fauci told NBC on Thursday. “I think it falls under the category of something that’s very unfortunate – these conspiracy theories that we hear about. Any time we have a crisis of any sort there is always this popping up of conspiracy theories.”

According to the official Centers for Disease Control (CDC) count, by the end of Wednesday there had been 12,754 deaths in the US due to the Covid-19 virus, from a total of 395,011 people who have been confirmed as infected.

The number of deaths has more than doubled over the past week, with New York continuing to be at the heart of the crisis after experiencing more infections than the whole of Spain, along with 4,000 deaths. On Tuesday, 779 people died from the coronavirus in New York state, a one-day record. New Jersey also set a one-day record, with 275 deaths, while Louisiana announced 70 further deaths on that day, matching its worst daily toll.

Public health experts have criticized a severe lack of planning by the Trump administration for the US becoming the global coronavirus hotspot, with a dearth of testing and equipment leading to hospitals being overwhelmed in places and states desperately scrambling to source ventilators, masks and gowns.

But several media figures who are sympathetic to the president have started to question the official death toll, claiming it is being distorted for political purposes, by including in the statistics people dying of other causes.

Tucker Carlson: &#x002018;When journalists work with numbers, there sometimes is an agenda.&#x002019;
Tucker Carlson: ‘When journalists work with numbers, there sometimes is an agenda.’ Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Fox News’s Brit Hume, who has previously tweeted that New York’s “fatality numbers are inflated”, appeared on Tucker Carlson’s late-night show on Tuesday to claim that any person with the virus is being counted as a Covid-19 death “regardless of what else may be wrong”. Carlson responded by saying, “There may be reasons people seek an inaccurate death count,” adding: “When journalists work with numbers, there sometimes is an agenda.”

The rightwing radio host Rush Limbaugh, who received the presidential medal of freedom from Trump, previously dismissed Covid-19 as similar to the “common cold” but changed tack recently to claim: “It’s admittedly speculation, but … what if we are recording a bunch of deaths to coronavirus which really should not be chalked up to coronavirus?”

Trump regularly echoes theories espoused on Fox News and previously dismissed an official death toll of 3,000 people in Puerto Rico in the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Maria. However, the president has yet to follow suit by questioning the Covid-19 figures, telling reporters that he thinks the states have been “pretty accurate on the death count”.

According to Deborah Birx, the response coordinator on the White House’s coronavirus taskforce, a person who goes into hospital to be treated for Covid-19 and has a pre-existing condition that eventually causes them to die, this is counted as a Covid-19 death. This is slightly different from Hume’s claim that someone dying for whatever reason is counted in the toll if they also have the coronavirus.

According to the CDC, about 90% of people recently hospitalized with the coronavirus had at least one underlying medical condition. Black people and older people are disproportionately being hospitalized because of the virus, due to their increased rate of other conditions such as diabetes, hypertension or respiratory problems.

It is in fact more likely that the coronavirus death toll is much higher than the official figures suggest, rather than it being inflated. The CDC has acknowledged its count is an “underestimation” because it only tallies cases where Covid-19 has been confirmed in a laboratory test.

Epidemiologists say a widespread lack of initial testing in the US means many people died without being counted, while even now some people who die at home or in nursing homes are not being tested for the virus.

In New York City, more than 200 people are dying at home each day during the pandemic, according to city officials, a very much higher rate than usual. Bill de Blasio, New York City’s mayor, has estimated that about 100 to 200 people a day who die at home in the city are not being included in the official virus death count. But the federal government insists the overall figures are largely accurate.

“I think there is more of a chance of missing some that are really coronavirus deaths that are not being counted,” Fauci told NBC. “But I don’t think that number is significant enough to really substantially modify the trends that we are seeing, at all.”