Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been deluged with a flood of media requests about a conspiracy theory promulgated by QAnon—an increasingly violent far-right group praised by President Donald Trump that is widely known for spreading disinformation.
As the agency attempted to manage the fallout of a controversial Health and Human Services announcement that it had revised testing guidelines to exclude individuals who do not exhibit symptoms, officials were sidetracked by a barrage of inquiries about whether the CDC had lied about the number of Americans who died as a result of the coronavirus. Over the weekend QAnon, a movement whose believers often push out falsities on a myriad of subjects, promoted a bogus theory that only 6 percent of people listed as having died from the coronavirus had “actually died” from COVID-19.
Officials at the CDC said they spent the last several days fielding questions or requests for comment from dozens of local and national outlets asking to clarify whether the agency had falsified its data. The wave of emails and calls about the conspiracy theory caught officials off-guard.
“The amount of requests we had to deal with on this issue was insane,” one senior official said. “And these were from legitimate outlets. This is all easily debunked by just searching our website for the actual statistics.”
The CDC effort to combat accusations from QAnon, a relatively new, increasingly unhinged movement that’s making inroads into online health communities, shows the power that conspiracy theorists can have during the pandemic—especially when boosted by the president. It also shows just how permeable the barrier between conspiracy cranks and established media outlets can be.
“In all my time working in the government I’ve never had to deal with something this crazy. The level of disinformation spread by this group has grown in recent months and now we’re having to actively debunk it through the press.”
The “six percent” claim was embraced by conservatives, who have been eager for ways to downplay the virus’ American death toll and have claimed for months that the CDC and hospitals were overcounting COVID-19 deaths. To QAnon supporters, the claim purports to show that COVID-19 has killed only 9,000 people, with the vast majority of the roughly 183,000 COVID-19 casualties actually killed by another ailment.
But they were wrong. In one section of an older data set, which relied on information collected from death certificates—one of the two main ways the CDC analyzes mortality in the U.S.—6 percent of people were listed as dying from COVID-19 alone. The death certificate algorithm scans for words such as “COVID-19” and “novel coronavirus” when analyzing mortality. In 94 percent of deaths with COVID-19, other conditions were listed in addition to COVID-19, such as diabetes or hypertension. Those conditions are often listed in the part of the death certificate that includes events that lead to an individual’s death.
Despite the QAnon calculation errors, the claim has been boosted by President Trump and his campaign. Trump himself retweeted a post promoting the false statistic before Twitter deleted it for violating company rules, while Trump campaign senior legal adviser Jenna Ellis posted a link to an article on fringe website The Gateway Pundit trumpeting the 6 percent figure.
The claim has also been promoted by high-profile QAnon conspiracy theorists, who believe that Trump is secretly engaged in a shadowy war against a global cabal of cannibal-pedophiles. The tweet Trump reposted, for example, came from a Twitter user and QAnon believer named “Mel Q,” a reference to QAnon.
This isn’t the first time during the pandemic that QAnon believers have played a key role in promoting coronavirus disinformation. Social media networks of QAnon supporters have become powerful ways to disseminate bogus stories about COVID-19, with QAnon believers promoting the viral disinformation video “Plandemic,” among others.
The debacle over QAnon’s inaccurate read of the mortality statistics is just the latest example of how the CDC has in recent months tried to combat efforts by Trump and his supporters to downplay the death count.
Earlier this summer, Trump and members of his coronavirus task force pushed for the CDC to change the way it counted COVID-19 deaths. As The Daily Beast previously reported, The White House pressed the agency to work with states to change how they count coronavirus deaths and report them back to the federal government. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the task force, urged CDC officials to exclude from coronavirus death-count reporting some of those individuals who either do not have confirmed lab results and are presumed positive or who have the virus and may not have died as a direct result of it.
Officials inside the CDC pushed back, claiming the move would skew mortality statistics. Since then, the team inside the CDC in charge of counting deaths has worked overtime to ensure the data it publishes on the agency’s website is accurate and as up-to-date as possible.
The running narrative within the team is that the U.S. has underestimated, not overcounted, the number of people who have died from the coronavirus. As of Sept. 1, the CDC has reported that 183,050 Americans have died since the start of the pandemic.