In January of 2022, New York’s hospital system released their data on COVID-19 hospitalizations for 2021. The data showed that only 58% of these hospitalizations were from COVID, meaning that the virus was the reason why these people landed in the hospital in the first place. The other 42% of COVID hospitalizations were from people who went to the hospital for broken bones or other issues and simply happened to test positive for the virus at the time. This data was released a year ago at this point.
Throughout the pandemic, US hospitals have consistently failed to distinguish deaths from/with COVID-19, which is an extreme disservice to the public. Lumping these two sets of figures together makes it appear like the virus is affecting many more lives than it actually is. I wonder why more public health officials didn’t point out this fact a year ago, when clear data from a large US state was released. I’m sure it was just a simple oversight on their part.
Last week, Dr. Leana Wen, former Health Commissioner for the city of Baltimore, went on CNN to discuss the issue of overcounting COVID hospitalizations and deaths. Wen was previously a strong advocate for lockdowns and restricting the ability of unvaccinated people to go out in public. In recent months, however, she has taken a turn towards less extremity, causing significant ire among her former supporters.
During her appearance on CNN, Wen explained that in many areas of the country, only 10% of people in the hospital from COVID are actually because of the virus. The rest have just tested positive for it incidentally. The CNN hosts were skeptical and pushed back against this data-driven claim. Yet why on Earth is this subject only allowed in the mainstream press now? It was obvious that overcounting hospitalizations and deaths was an issue years ago. Back in January of 2022, when NY released its hospital data, stating that COVID deaths were being overcounted was considered a conspiracy theory and could get you kicked off social media. No wonder the phrase to describe happenings in the pandemic has arisen: the difference between a conspiracy theory and fact is six months.
As an employee of a university, I work with exactly the type of people who would push back against Wen’s claims about deaths/hospitalizations, which, once again, were supported by pure data, and have been for a considerable amount of time. These people are still worried that they have an extremely high chance of being hospitalized or dying of COVID if they catch the virus. These individuals are living in a completely different universe to most of the country that has simply moved on with their lives. And why are they living in this alternative reality? Because of the continuous (one might even say purposeful) failures of the public health establishment to give transparent information about the virus to the public.
In the fall of 2020, I worked with colleagues who were convinced that everyone, young or old, had an equal chance of dying from the virus. By that time, we had known for months through hospital data that the primary victims were elderly people with comorbidities – I’m sure that many readers remember tragic stories of nursing homes being devastated by the virus. Yet because public health authorities took the “everyone should be equally terrified” approach to communication, this misperception that everyone is equally at risk persisted long after data was available.
I am glad that some information about the realities of COVID data is now being allowed on the mainstream press. Dr. Leana Wen is certainly in a difficult situation, because the class of liberals cultivated by years of intentionally panic-inducing news reports will feel betrayed that she is now taking a more measured route, and those who were against her harsh COVID policies in the first place will not be quick to forgive.
Yet the fact that some people in the US are shocked by the idea that COVID hospitalizations and deaths are miscounted demonstrates the utter failure of the public health establishment. Denmark began separating deaths with/from COVID more than a year ago. Why has the US still not done the same? I know many individuals who simply cannot figure out why individuals don’t trust health authorities and why trust keeps declining. Perhaps it is because of a complete lack of transparency and a refusal to provide better data to the public. Perhaps – and this is a crazy idea – Americans won’t trust an authority that consistently lies to them.
I am truly saddened by how much figures in public health have damaged their own reputation. This type of trust cannot be won back easily, and right now I don’t think such trust is warranted at all. People in positions of power within the public health establishment need to offer an apology and explain how they will avoid making the same mistakes in the future. A sincere apology would be the first step towards restoring trust in public health authorities – but somehow, I doubt that any such apology is coming soon.