Kelly Hawes: Fact checks won’t sway a true believer


The message seemed a bit cryptic.

Sent in reaction to a column criticizing the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19, it was made up entirely of one four-digit number: 9,210.

Wondering what that number might signify, I turned to Google, and my search uncovered a message retweeted by one Donald J. Trump, the president of the United States. It was a message about COVID-19 and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This week the CDC quietly updated the COVID number to admit that only 6% of all the 153,504 deaths recorded actually died from Covid,” read the message from a guy calling himself Mel Q. “That’s 9,210 deaths. The other 94% had 2-3 other serious illnesses & the overwhelming majority were of very advanced age.”

My reader, Mel Q, is a self-identified QAnon supporter, and he seemed to be suggesting that this pandemic might not be quite as bad as I had suggested.

PolitiFact determined the whole thing started with a Facebook post from a guy named Amiri King.

“CDC just backpedaled (quietly) and adjusted the US Covid deaths from 153,504 to 9,210,” the post read. “Admitting that their numbers … were off by a whopping 94%.”

Not only were the numbers out of date; it turns out that the message circulated by our president and his fellow conspiracy theorists represented a misunderstanding of the report. PolitiFact noted that Dr. Mark Halstead, an associate professor of orthopedic surgery and pediatrics at Washington University, had addressed the controversy in a Facebook post of his own.

“So, let’s say someone was admitted to the hospital because of symptoms of COVID,” he wrote. “They test positive, so COVID would be listed. Their case progressed where they developed respiratory failure and now are on a ventilator. Respiratory failure can be listed.”

If the patient ended up dying from cardiac arrest, he wrote, that cause could also be included.

“So now three things are listed on their death certificate,” Halstead wrote. “The COVID infection started the process, but that led to the heart and lungs failing, which killed that person.”

And while death certificates are supposed to list all conditions that contributed, they don’t always do that. It’s possible that even those cases where COVID-19 was listed as the only cause had other contributing factors.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious-diseases expert at Vanderbilt University, takes us to the bottom line.

“If it hadn’t been for the COVID virus infection, these people would be living today,” he said. “So yes, although they have contributing underlying chronic health factors, it’s still the COVID virus that killed them.”

None of that, of course, will stand in the way of someone dead set on advancing a confused argument.

Take this woman who appeared on a panel of current and former Trump supporters on CNN. Decked out in red, white and blue, the woman sat in front of a sign that said “Donald Trump matters.”

When a fellow panelist suggested the president had let the country down in the way he dealt with the coronavirus, the woman jumped quickly to his defense.

“Let’s talk about the death toll,” she said.

“Has everyone read the CDC report that just came out? My goodness! It is a fraction of what they originally said.”

The show’s host, Alisyn Camerota, pointed out that the CDC had not, in fact, reduced the death toll, but her panelist was unmoved.

“Well, then we’ll agree to disagree,” the woman said.

Asked if she believed the official death toll, the panelist offered an emphatic no.

Devotion, it seems, will conquer anything. Even a few pesky facts.

Kelly Hawes is a columnist for CNHI News Indiana. Send comments to [email protected].