A legislative health committee last week heard presentations by researchers advocating for fewer COVID-19 restrictions who have been touted in conservative circles, including one who said that social distancing measures don’t stop the spread of disease.
Many of the claims, which have taken hold on social media and in the conservative press, have been proven factually inaccurate or met with skepticism by the scientific community.
For example, two of the speakers repeatedly pointed to Sweden, which didn’t impose strict distancing restrictions but also hasn’t seen dramatically higher deaths attributed to COVID-19, as having a more responsible response to the pandemic. Similar talking points have been made by conservative politicians like Republican Sen. Rand Paul.
However, Sweden’s overall death rate is actually higher than some of its neighboring countries and far greater in 2020 than expected.
The special May 14 House Health and Human Services Committee meeting, which was organized and convened by Chairwoman Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, did not include any presentations from the Arizona Department of Health Services or other public health experts.
The committee did not respond to an emailed question from Arizona Mirror asking why Barto didn’t invite public health officials or epidemiologists from ADHS.
Instead, the committee heard from people with little experience managing public health crises and questionable backgrounds on COVID-19.
The presentations were moderated by Aaron Ginn, president and co-founder of the Lincoln Network, a conservative non-profit that is part of the State Policy Network, a national web of far-right “think tanks” and tax-exempt organizations. Ginn formerly worked on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012.
One presenter, Joel Hay, a senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics, said that social distancing measures don’t work at stopping the spread of infectious diseases like COVID-19.
“Social distancing and social isolation is mainly irrelevant,” Hay said, echoing comments he’s made previously that there is no scientific proof that such measures work.
Hay, who has a doctorate in economics and teaches pharmaceutical economics, also said there have been only 10 deaths of children under the age of 15 in the United States due to COVID-19. However, according to CDC data there have been 24.
“Kids don’t die from this disease,” Hay said.
Children have been shown to be more affected by COVID-19 than initially believed. A study by Rutgers University found that children and teens are at a higher risk than previously thought, particularly children with underlying health conditions.
More than 20% of the children in the study experienced failure of two or more organ systems due to COVID-19, and nearly 40% required breathing support in the form of a tube or ventilator. One child remained on life support by the end of the study period and two of the children admitted during the three-week study period died.
The committee also heard testimony from Dr. Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University, who recently published a study that 0.7% of Major League Baseball employees tested positive for antibodies to COVID-19. His work has also been criticized for its accuracy and how participants were chosen.
“It’s a deadly disease and we should be very concerned about it,” Bhattacharya said, adding that Arizona should be focused on managing its elderly population instead of lockdown measures that could lead to “deaths of despair.”
“All these lives count, and we need to count them in the policy making,” Bhattacharya said. “Not just the COVID lives, but the people hurt by the lockdown.”
Bhattacharya has also been a guest of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, where he has said he believes the death rate for COVID-19 is much lower than current estimates.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said the opposite last week when he testified before a U.S. Senate panel. The United States’ death count of more than 80,000, the highest documented in any country, is likely undercounted. Many people who died at their homes may not have gone to the hospital, Fauci said, noting that there are other data inconsistencies.
One of Bhattacharya’s students, Dr. Neeraj Sood of the Sol Price School of Public Policy, told the committee that COVID-19 hasn’t been as deadly as initially thought. Sood’s doctorate is in policy analysis and his research focuses on economic epidemiology, infectious diseases, pharmaceutical markets, health insurance and Medicare.
“This is a much less deadly disease than we thought it was based on confirmed cases,” Sood said, adding that measures like contact tracing will likely not work due to the number of infected people who do not present symptoms.
The death rate from COVID-19 may be lower than initially thought, said Benjamin Corb, director of public policy for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, but the current death rate is still higher than Sood suggests.
“Sure, much less deadly than the 6% death rate original thought coming out of China,” Corb told Arizona Mirror in an email. “Science is always evolving conclusions based on new data. The newest data suggest a death rate of ~4-6% is still 1.2M people if 60% of the US gets it.”
Sood stressed that, while social distancing can be helpful, he felt that building healthcare infrastructure would be more helpful. Keeping people from interacting with each other means “herd immunity” can’t build up in healthier individuals.
A recent study by researchers at Harvard found that intermittent social distancing may be necessary into 2022 to help “hasten the acquisition of herd immunity.” Even with a vaccine anticipated to arrive by next year, some worry that herd immunity could take longer as the vaccine will likely play a pivotal role.
Lanhee J. Chen, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution and lecturer at Stanford’s public policy and law schools, also spoke before the committee. Before his stint at Stanford, Chen was a policy advisor to George W. Bush’s 2004 and Mitt Romney’s 2020 presidential campaigns.
“Life cannot stop just because we don’t have a vaccine yet,” Chen said.
He urged the committee to ensure that K-12 schools reopen in the fall, saying that children are far less at risk of the virus than any other age group.
Chen advised the committee to consider having older faculty and administrators “sit out a term or two” and possibly have classes phase in, while having at-risk students continue to work from home. Chen said that having schools return is vital to an economic recovery.
Avik Roy, president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, a non-profit think tank tied to the conservative Koch family, stressed that the “benchmarks” set by public health officials on re-opening the state will likely take too long to meet and will have long-lasting economic consequences.
He also said that the death rate for COVID-19 for anyone under the age of 65 is lower than that of the flu.
Roy, like some of the other speakers, stressed the importance of protecting the elderly in Arizona’s nursing homes.
Some committee members pushed back on the presenters. Phoenix Democratic Rep. Amish Shah, an emergency room physician, asked Bhattacharya if he had looked at Arizona’s COVID-19 stats. Bhattacharya admitted he had not.
Shah also asked Bhattacharya and Sood to respond to Hay’s assertion that social distancing does not work, since the two suggested that some social distancing measures should be in place in some capacity.
Bhattacharya said that social distancing “probably works to some degree” and Sood said he saw social distancing as a tool to help prevent health care facilities from being overwhelmed.
Shah also called out Hay for incorrectly saying that Sweden had fewer deaths from COVID-19 than any of its neighboring countries.
“We can’t have different facts. We have to be working with the same facts,” he said.
Sweden has taken a controversial approach to the virus by not locking down as other countries have. Hay stated that the country had seen fewer deaths than any of its European counterparts, which is not true.
In Sweden, almost 30% more people have died during the pandemic than normally would. The United States has seen a similar spike in unexpected deaths, and Sweden’s rate is far higher than its neighbors.
Barto, whose 97-year-old mother is in a nursing home, asked the speakers if there is a point when we should begin exposing at-risk individuals to the disease to “build immunity,” echoing a theory called natural immunity that has been mainly pushed by anti-vaccine activists.
Bhattacharya empathized with Barto, pointing out that he has an elderly mother as well, but said at-risk people shouldn’t be exposed to COVID-19.