As the death toll from the coronavirus in the United States approaches 100,000, it’s important to watch out for efforts to underplay the catastrophe the Trump administration has created. Already, there’s evidence that some states may be obfuscating their coronavirus data to better conform to President Donald Trump’s personal narrative that the country is progressing toward recovery and reopening — even though most states haven’t met the reopening guidelines published by either the administration or the World Health Organization.
Below are four states to keep an eye on.
In early May, one day before Trump toured a mask factory in Arizona, officials at the state’s Department of Health Services reportedly emailed modelers at the University of Arizona telling them to “pause” their work on coronavirus models. The state’s official explanation is that they had moved toward using a nonpublic model created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and were focusing more on “real-time” data over predictive modeling. The state has since reinstated the modeling team, whose data predicts a possible spike in infection and death rates over the summer. Meanwhile, the state has argued in a court filing against the need to reveal the names of nursing homes that have seen particularly large coronavirus outbreaks, claiming that doing so could stigmatize the facilities in question.
On May 15, Rebekah Jones, the official in charge of Florida’s online coronavirus dashboard, told reporters she had been removed from the project for refusing to help cook the books and remove records from the online dashboard. Jones subsequently told reporters that she was fired specifically for refusing to remove data that would have shown that, contrary to a push by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), certain Florida counties were not ready to reopen. (State officials deny Jones’ allegations, saying claims of data manipulation are “patently false” and that she was fired for “insubordination.”) Jones’ claim follows allegations from the chairman of the state’s Medical Examiners Commission that he was told not to release a comprehensive list of coronavirus deaths that reportedly showed a tally 10 percent higher than the health department’s official count, as well as reports that Florida’s surgeon general was removed from a meeting in April for suggesting that social distancing might need to last as much as a full year. (Officials at the state’s Department of Health dispute the Medical Examiners Commission chairman’s characterization, saying that any difference in their numbers is because “they are counting different things than we are.” Gov. DeSantis’ office did not comment on the surgeon general’s allegation.)
Gov. Brian Kemp (R) — the only state leader whose coronavirus response is as unpopular as Trump’s — was forced to admit that Georgia was misrepresenting its data. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed, charts on the state’s Department of Public Health’s (DPH) website showed caseloads with the dates out of order, conveniently creating the false impression that cases were declining over time right as Gov. Kemp was pushing the state toward reopening. This follows multiple instances of the DPH changing its counting methods in ways that suggested a precipitous drop in cases that conflicts with other data sources and of Gov. Kemp misrepresenting the number of cases in the state. (Kemp has acknowledged that the state government has “made mistakes” and is working to fix them.)
According to The Washington Post, as of May 12, “Of the 30 counties in the United States with the highest per capita prevalence of the coronavirus …10 are home to major meatpacking plants.” As these rural meatpacking plants emerged as major coronavirus vectors, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) announced in early May that the state would stop reporting information on infection rates at individual facilities. By the time Gov. Ricketts announced the decision, more than 1,000 workers at meatpacking plants had tested positive for the coronavirus, including multiple facilities with at least 100 cases each, including one that reportedly saw 669 cases.
Meanwhile, Trump has already begun to publicly claim that death rates are being inflated to hurt him politically — even as members of his own administration, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, and nonpartisan data sources such as the CDC both suggest the death toll from the coronavirus is likely higher than reported.
As Trump recklessly pushes to ease social-distancing measures, it will only become more vital to keep the true death toll clear and resist efforts to underplay the devastation the coronavirus has caused.