Coronavirus: Why can’t we trust a single statistic on the pandemic?

Multiple studies find that up to half of reported hospitalizations for coronavirus aren’t actually for coronavirus or are for cases with mild symptoms that likely don’t require hospitalization, calling into question panic-inducing reporting on the issue and raising questions of massive fraud.  In response, the public health experts claim this means the vaccine is working.  Is it any wonder why it gets harder by the day to trust anything the establishment says?

In addition to hubris, the coronavirus pandemic has been marked by metrics.  The first pandemic to occur in the information age has brought with it every conceivable variety of dashboard, consolidating near-real time data on the number of infections, hospital admissions, deaths, vaccination rates, and more.  This data is available to just about everyone at almost any time, on almost any device.  Thus, the latest numbers are poured over by journalists and amateur sleuths, then recycled into articles and blog posts, often promoting outright panic.  One of the most widely cited metrics throughout the pandemic has been the hospitalization rate, specifically what percentage of hospital beds are filled with coronavirus patients.  The Atlantic described it as “the most reliable pandemic number” and Vox quoted leading cardiologist, Eric Topol, who claimed it’s the “best indicator of where we are.”

The hospitalization metric serves several purposes.  First, it gives it a sense of the scale and potential devastation of the disease.  No one wants to go to the hospital, implicit in the notion is that your disease state is critically severe and you might die without treatment.  Second, there’s the ongoing suggestion that our healthcare system is about to be overrun and potentially collapse.  Third, it creates a sense of general fear that if you need medical attention for some other reason, you won’t be treated because the hospitals are so chock full of coronavirus patients.  CNN is a regular purveyor of this doom and gloom.  Here is a sampling of headlines from just the past couple of weeks:  Everyday, hundreds of kids are getting hospitalized from Covid-19; Overwhelmed Kentucky hospitals fear the worst as federal Covid-19 assistance is scheduled to leave on Friday; As Covid-19 hospitalizations spike, some overwhelmed hospitals are rationing care; Covid-19 is crushing this corner of rural America; Biden administration closely monitoring supply of medical grade oxygen to treat Covid-19 patients. 

Perhaps peak hysteria in this regard occurred when NPR reported that an Alabama native died in Mississippi, 200 miles from home, because all of the ICU beds in between were taken by COVID-19 patients.  “Ray DeMonia, 73, was born and raised in Cullman, Ala., but he died on Sept. 1, some 200 miles away in an intensive care unit in Meridian, Miss.  Last month, DeMonia, who spent 40 years in the antiques and auctions business, suffered a cardiac emergency. But it was because hospitals are full due to the coronavirus — and not his heart — that he was forced to spend his last days so far from home, according to his family.”  His obituary included this plea, “In honor of Ray, please get vaccinated if you have not, in an effort to free up resources for non COVID related emergencies.”  The story would be shocking if true, but of course it’s not.  Buried in the NPR report, they note Mr. DeMonia was transferred because he required “a higher level of specialized care” than was available at the local hospital.  This is standard procedure, both before and during the pandemic.

Other networks have run similar stories, playing on the sense that patients are dying in overcrowded hospitals due to lack of care and we’re one new wave or variant away from disaster.  Even if you don’t get the virus yourself, you’re at risk if you suffer some other injury or illness, but what if people were being hospitalized for minor or even no symptoms?  What if a significant portion of the coronavirus hospitalizations either weren’t actually for coronavirus in the first place?  That, precisely, is what a series of recent studies has found.  The numbers are both shocking and have gotten worse over time. The Atlantic’s David Zweig reported on the findings earlier this week.  In May, California doctors reviewed the actual medical charts of pediatric patients who were identified as coronavirus-positive to determine whether or not they were admitted for a serious case of COVID-19 or some other reason like a cancer treatment or mental health.  They found that 40-45% of these children were not admitted for coronavirus at all, they simply tested positive at the hospital with an asymptomatic case.

Another study looked at 50,000 admissions in 100 Veterans Administration hospitals across the country, checking to see if the patient required supplemental oxygen and/or had a blood oxygen level below 94%, the threshold defined by the National Institutes of Health as severe COVID-19.  The authors considered any patient meeting this criteria to have suffered from either moderate to severe disease; anyone who did not was considered either mild or asymptomatic.  They found that between March 2020 and January 2021, 36% of patients who were supposedly admitted for COVID-19 had only mild or even no symptoms.  Since then, however, that number has increased to 48%.  According to Mr. Zweig, “In other words, the study suggests that roughly half of all the hospitalized patients showing up on COVID-data dashboards in 2021 may have been admitted for another reason entirely, or had only a mild presentation of disease.”

This is earth-shattering news:  If up to half the coronavirus patients in hospitals either don’t need to be there or are there for something else, every single headline we have seen on the topic is misleading at best or outright fraudulent at worst, and the media has been spreading panic for little to no reason.  In addition, we’ve known for some time that hospitals are getting subsidized by the various relief bills to treat coronavirus patients.  Last year, Senator Scott Jensen, a physician from Minnesota, wrote on Facebook, “Hospital administrators might well want to see COVID-19 attached to a discharge summary or a death certificate. Why? Because if it’s a straightforward, garden-variety pneumonia that a person is admitted to the hospital for – if they’re Medicare – typically, the diagnosis-related group lump sum payment would be $5,000. But if its COVID-19 pneumonia, then it’s $13,000, and if that COVID-19 pneumonia patient ends up on a ventilator, it goes up to $39,000.”  Meaning, this is potentially fraud on an absolutely massive scale.

Incredibly, the “experts” who looked at this study reached a completely different conclusion:  In their opinion, this is proof that the vaccines are working, or something.  Graham Snyder, of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, “It’s underreported how well the vaccine makes your life better, how much less sick you are likely to be, and less sick even if hospitalized.  That’s the gem in this study.”  Daniel Griffin, an infectious disease specialist at Columbia University, explained, “People ask me, ‘Why am I getting vaccinated if I just end up in the hospital anyway?’ But I say, ‘You’ll end up leaving the hospital.’”

Mr. Zweig himself does note, “the study also demonstrates that hospitalization rates for COVID, as cited by journalists and policy makers, can be misleading, if not considered carefully” and “this study suggests that COVID hospitalization tallies can’t be taken as a simple measure of the prevalence of severe or even moderate disease, because they might inflate the true numbers by a factor of two,” but both are gross understatements.   If you were to log into your bank account and it showed you twice as much money as you actually had, you’d go bankrupt.  If you signed a mortgage and the payment turned out to be twice as much, you wouldn’t be able to afford it and you’d go to court.  If a statistic is inflating the true numbers by a factor of two, it’s entirely meaningless and therefore useless, and yet these metrics have been touted far and wide, informing policy, the media, and draining our tax dollars in the process.

One might ask how this is even possible:  The pandemic has been ongoing for 18 months and hospitalizations have been reported throughout, but we’re only just now learning that this critical metric has been off by a third from the start and half in recent months?  Hundreds if not thousands of journalists have supposedly been crunching this data, and yet not one of them thought to ask if it was accurate.  Of course, these same journalists had the time to take on state governors unpopular with the establishment, like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.  As recently as August 31, the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald were digging into how Florida reports their coronavirus deaths and, surprise, surprise, they found a change in their methodology the experts didn’t like, switching from the date the death was reported to when the death actually occurred.  “If you chart deaths by Florida’s new method, based on date of death, it will generally appear — even during a spike like the present — that deaths are on a recent downslope. That’s because it takes time for deaths to be evaluated and death certificates processed. When those deaths finally are tallied, they are assigned to the actual date of death — creating a spike where there once existed a downslope and moving the downslope forward in time.”  Note, they are concerned about the mere appearance of charted deaths, not that the numbers themselves are inaccurate or false.

They proceed quote an expert, Shivani Patel, assistant professor at Emory University, to call the move “extremely problematic,” claiming the data show an “artificial decline” and that “it would look like we are doing better than we are.”  Of course, the Florida Department of Health tweeted about the change, they just didn’t offer enough information in the minds of the media and the experts.  “As a result of data discrepancies that have occurred, this week, FDOH worked quickly and efficiently with CDC to ensure accurate display of data on their website the same day,” a spokesperson told the newspaper in August. “To proactively ensure accurate data is consistently displayed, the Department will begin daily submission of a complete renewed set of case data to CDC, including retrospective COVID-19 cases.”  This, of course, wasn’t enough.  “It shouldn’t be left to the public, to scientists, national policy makers or the media to guess as to what these numbers are,” Dr. Patel griped. “We know from the beginning that dates matter and that they tell us different things.”

Perhaps needless to say, there is not a word from the Miami Herald about the fact that half of hospitalizations reported in the entire country could be false.  Apparently, they’d rather focus on the appearance of the data to malign a Republican than the actual validity and make political points rather than get to the truth.  I don’t include this anecdote simply to pick on the Herald, but rather to illustrate that journalists have supposedly been all over this data and apparently never once thought to question it, while questioning everything any conservative governor did, repeatedly. The new studies also make one wonder what other numbers can’t be trusted.  I think it’s fair to say that most deaths from coronavirus occur in the hospital, but how can that number be trusted if up to half the people admitted to the hospital for coronavirus aren’t actually ill with coronavirus?

I can’t say for sure, but I do know that one of the critical problems we faced during the pandemic was a lack of trust in general, both in our public health experts and in the media.  Right or wrong, people are not going to listen to what you say, much less adhere to restrictions you want to impose or inject themselves with a vaccine, unless they trust that what you are saying is true and believe you have their best interests at heart.  Yet, from the very start of the pandemic, public health experts and the media played fast and loose with the truth on topics big and small, to all of our detriment.  To mask or not to mask?  Where did the virus come from?  Did we fund the kind of research that could have led to the pandemic?  Is racism a bigger public health threat and should protests be exempt?  How effective is the vaccine compared to natural immunityAre we trying to slow the spread or eradicate the disease?

On these issues and more, many experts have taken both sides or even no side at all, changing their minds with the political or whatever winds.  We will get through this pandemic at some point, but the lack of trust might never be recovered.  Even worse, they don’t seem to care in the least.

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