It is hard to fathom why people, including members of the Arkansas legislature whose notions have an impact on the people they represent, believe that nefarious forces in government have exaggerated the number of COVID-19 dead.

The fringe right has promoted that notion by misinterpreting — who knows why — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s analysis of the nearly 185,000 million American deaths: That 94 percent of those who’ve died of the virus had comorbidities — lung problems, heart problems, obesity, diabetes, etc. The QAnon nutcases — perhaps thinking they weren’t getting enough traction with their theory that Satan worshipers running a global child-trafficking ring are trying to take down President Trump — leaped on that information to declare that CDC was revealing that only 6 percent, 9,000 people, had actually died of COVID-19.

We’re used to conspiracy theorists in the legislature, like Rep. Jack Fortner (R-Yellville), who asked State Epidemiologist Dr. Jennifer Dillaha in a hearing Monday how many people die on average every year of the flu (a common comparison brought up by people who dismiss the seriousness of the virus). She guessed 100. He then asked how many who’ve died of COVID-19 had terminal illnesses. (She said she’d get that number for him.) He asked if a person died in a motorcycle accident but was found to have been infected would be listed as a COVID-19 death. Not unless COVID-19 had contributed to his death, she patiently explained. Fortner insisted that had happened, so he asked, “Would there be any motivation for anyone to list it as a COVID-19 death?” She couldn’t say.

It seems obvious that the asthmatic or the smoker or the person with chronic pulmonary lung disease who becomes infected with the coronavirus and dies has died of COVID-19, which affects the lungs. Do people really believe that a person with high blood pressure whose heart can’t fight the virus has died of hypertension and should not be counted among the COVID-19 dead?  

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Arkansas Department of Health
Acting Chief Medical Officer Dr. Appathurai Balamurugan.

The state’s acting Chief Medical Officer Dr. Appathurai Balamurugan, who goes by Dr. Bala and who succeeded Dr. Jose Romero when Romero was named Secretary of Health by Governor Hutchinson, describes the involvement of COVID-19 as “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” 

It’s a dangerous notion, Bala said, that the state is exaggerating coronavirus death numbers. “By undercounting, you are creating a false sense that it’s not a big deal. Then we are losing our public health measures, like wearing a mask, hand hygiene, which have shown to flatten the curve” and lowered the death rate in other countries, Bala said. Yes.

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Asked Tuesday about how many people in Arkansas who’ve died of COVID-19 did not have underlying health issues, Romero said it was 5.5 percent. He said if you have such health risks such as diabetes, hypertension and the others identified by the CDC to increase mortality, “really want to protect yourself” from becoming infected with the coronavirus.

Bala said he believes the pandemic offers a “teachable moment for us” in public health in Arkansas: “We have to invest in managing our information on tobacco use, poor diets, obesity, the lack of physical activity.” The South, he said, is the “epicenter of all chronic medical conditions,” and Arkansas is No. 1 in the rate of heart attacks in the nation. Investment would require a funding body that believed in science, of course.

The death rate was actually a side issue in Monday’s Senate hearing. It was called by Sen. Jason Rapert so he could whale away on Romero for the Arkansas Health Department guidance that hydroxychloroquine is not recommended for the treatment of COVID-19 and shouldn’t be used (especially not with remdesivir, which doctors gave Rapert when he was seriously ill with COVID-19. He’d said he’d asked for HCQ.). Rapert and others insisted Romero was disingenuous when he said he wasn’t telling doctors what they could prescribe for their patients and that doctors had every right to prescribe off-label. Rapert called as a witness Dr. Sandra Young, who said she quit Human Development Center in Conway because Romero said she couldn’t prescribe HCQ to COVID-19 patients. (Romero told her he couldn’t recommend it and she shouldn’t use it, per CDC and FDA guidance.) Young’s expert advice to the Senate committee: If everybody would take 200 mg of hydroxychloroquine and zinc, there would be no COVID-19 in the state of Arkansas in two weeks.

Like Dr. Trump said, it’s like magic.

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