Clinicians Incensed by Trump's Claim They're Inflating COVID Numbers

Kerry Dooley Young

October 26, 2020

Medical groups and the clinicians they represent are criticizing President Donald Trump for his claim that their drive for reimbursement for COVID treatment may have raised reported United States fatality rates compared with those of other nations.

Speaking at a campaign event Saturday in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Trump said he thought US doctors were attributing deaths to COVID that their counterparts in other nations would not.

"If somebody is terminally ill with cancer and they have COVID, we report 'em and you know doctors get more money and hospitals get more money. Think of this incentive. So some countries do it differently. If someone is very sick with a bad heart and they die of COVID, they don't get reported as COVID," Trump said. "So then you wonder, 'Why are their cases so low?' "

Trump did not immediately in this speech cite any specific nations to which he was comparing the US, nor did he refer to any published reports on potential differences in COVID counting. He touched on this theme of testing differences briefly during his campaign appearance, mentioning it in between criticisms of Democratic lawmakers.

"Reprehensible Attack"

Trump's remarks angered many medical groups and the clinicians they represent, healthcare workers who have endured increased personal risk and, in many cases, notable drops in income because of the pandemic — not to mention the high death rates of frontline healthcare workers. They also challenged Trump's assertion about how COVID deaths are counted in the United States.

Eva Chalas, MD, president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), and Maureen G. Phipps, MD, MPH, chief executive officer of ACOG, issued a joint statement accentuating the deaths of those in harm's way.

"Science is science and data are data. Doctors have no reason to make up or to inflate COVID-19 case numbers," they said. "In fact, many physicians and other healthcare workers have died from the virus. It is irresponsible and dangerous to suggest that doctors, including obstetrician-gynecologists, have done anything other than bravely battle this pandemic on behalf of their patients and their communities."

In a tweet, the American Medical Association (AMA) highlighted an October 12 research letter that appeared in JAMA regarding the toll of excess deaths in the US, as reported by Medscape Medical News.

The AMA also put out a tweet with the following statement condemning the "misinformation about how patients are counted":

https://twitter.com/AmerMedicalAssn/status/1320472544982519808

The American College of Physicians (ACP) made the same point in a statement Sunday, calling Trump's comments "a reprehensible attack on physicians' ethics and professionalism."

"ACP notes that several recent studies suggest that the actual number of people who have died from COVID-19 is much higher than the terrible toll of 220,000 deaths officially attributed to the virus," said Jacqueline W. Fincher, MD, president of ACP, in the statement.

Undermining Clinicians

Trump's statements also may hinder efforts to control the pandemic, said the Council of Medical Specialty Societies (CMSS), in a statement Sunday. The council said it includes 45 specialty societies representing more than 800,000 physician members.

With winter approaching, clinicians already face a challenge in convincing Americans, weary of pandemic restrictions, to stick with basic public health precautions.

"These baseless claims do a disservice to all health professionals and promulgate misinformation that hinders our nation's efforts to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control," the CMSS said. "Every American deserves a strong public health response to the pandemic based on sound science and respect for those who provide care."

The Society of Hospital Medicine, which represents hospitalists and their patients, entered the fray by supporting the CMSS statement, saying hospitalists are "selflessly placing their lives at risk amidst this health crisis."

In the ACP statement, Fincher also cited a concern about an erosion of public trust in physicians at a critical time.

"Alleging that COVID-19 deaths instead are overcounted undermines the work by physicians and public health authorities to remind the public of the seriousness of the pandemic and to recommend steps to reduce transmission of the virus, cases, and deaths," Fincher said.

The American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) said in a statement that the group is appalled by Trump's "reckless and false assertions that physicians are overcounting deaths related to COVID-19." ACEP also emphasized the emotional toll of the pandemic on clinicians.

"Emergency physicians and other healthcare workers have risked their lives day in and day out for almost a year battling the greatest public health crisis in a generation — all while watching countless patients die alone, going to work without sufficient protection equipment, and struggling with crushing anxiety about getting sick or spreading the virus to their loved ones," the group said.

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