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US Government's Handling of Coronavirus Crisis Has Led to Severe Undercounting of Deaths, Public Health Officials Say

"Data erasure and the manufacture of mass confusion have already begun."

Julia Conley

Severe delays in making coronavirus testing widely available has led the U.S. to drastically undercount the number of deaths from the coronavirus, public health experts say. (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

Decision-making by the U.S. government early on during the coronavirus outbreak has likely led to the country severely undercounting the number of deaths from the virus, officially known as COVID-19, according to public health experts.

As of Sunday, more than 328,000 people in the U.S. had confirmed cases of the coronavirus, and more than 9,000 have died of the respiratory disease. But as the Washington Post reported Sunday, many deaths from respiratory failure and other recorded causes in the first weeks that the virus was spreading across the country may actually have been related to COVID-19. 

"The battle to prevent Americans from understanding what went down January to April is going to be one of the biggest propaganda and freedom of information fights in modern U.S. history."
—Jay Rosen, NYU

The U.S. has lagged far behind many other wealthy nations in making testing widely available to the public. In January, German researchers developed a test for the disease which was soon used by countries including South Korea, which has been praised as one of the most successful countries in the world in the fight to detect and slow the spread of the illness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declined to use the test, leading the agency to ration the tests that were available to Americans. In February and March, Americans including healthcare workers reported showing symptoms of the virus and having been exposed to sick people, only to have the CDC turn down their requests for testing. 

Even now that testing is more widely available in the U.S., the Post reported Sunday, potential coronavirus patients in nursing homes and prisons, where the disease is spreading rapidly, have limited access. The CDC is only including a death in the official toll if the patient had a lab test confirming coronavirus. 

"We know that it is an underestimation," CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund told the Post.

Meanwhile, South Korea was testing about 10,000 people per day as of mid-March, giving the government an accurate measure of who had the disease and needed to be quarantined. The country's reported death toll is under 200.

The United States' "most consequential failure involved a breakdown in efforts to develop a diagnostic test that could be mass produced and distributed across the United States, enabling agencies to map early outbreaks of the disease, and impose quarantine measures to contain them," wrote Yasmeen Abutaleb, Josh Dawsey, Ellen Nakashima, and Greg Miller at the Post on Saturday.

Last week, some were shocked to read reports out of Italy that officials there were not counting people who died of COVID-19 at home rather than in a hospital in their official count of coronavirus-related deaths.

With reports of undercounting in other countries, Trita Parsi of the Quincy Institute wrote at the time, "Anyone have confidence Trump isn't?"

In early March, President Donald Trump explicitly expressed a desire to undercount the cases of coronavirus in the country, demanding that at least 21 cruise ship passengers who had contracted the virus stay aboard the vessel instead of disembarking to get care in the United States. 

"I like the numbers being where they are," Trump said at the time. "I don't need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn't our fault."

After the pandemic ends, media critic Jay Rosen tweeted, the administration's attempts to hide information about how it spiraled out of control "is going to be one of the biggest propaganda and freedom of information fights in modern U.S. history." 

"It may never be known how many thousands of deaths, or millions of infections, might have been prevented with a response that was more coherent, urgent and effective," reported the Post. "But even now, there are many indications the administration's handling of the crisis had potentially devastating consequences."


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