Iowa's Ernst questions COVID death toll, echoes conspiracy theory

We're occasionally reminded that Iowa's Joni Ernst sees the world from a weird political perspective, filled with ideas from the right-wing fringe.
Image: Senators Hold Weekly Policy Luncheons At The Capitol
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, speaks during a news briefing after the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 10, 2019.Alex Wong / Getty Images file
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By Steve Benen

With Sen. Joni Ernst facing a tough re-election campaign in Iowa, the Republican incumbent hosted an event in Waterloo this week, fielding questions from locals on a variety of subjects.

One, however, stood out. The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reported:

One attendee told Ernst during the question-and-answer period he believed COVID-19 cases and deaths are being overcounted, a theory discounted by medical professionals who say the actual numbers are probably much higher than official tallies. Ernst said she was “so skeptical” of those numbers as well. “These health-care providers and others are reimbursed at a higher rate if COVID is tied to it, so what do you think they’re doing?” she told the crowd.

Hmm. So as far as the far-right senator is concerned, medical professionals may be engaged in some kind of conspiracy to boost their own finances during a pandemic.

Asked after the event what she was talking about, the Iowa Republican said she wasn't certain about her theory, but she's "heard" things from health-care providers she didn't identify.

“They do get reimbursed higher amounts if it’s a COVID-related illness or death,” Ernst added. “I heard the same thing on the news. ... They’re thinking there may be 10,000 or less deaths that were actually singularly COVID-19."

Let's take stock of reality. First, as actual experts have repeatedly tried to explain, the COVID-19 death toll has not been inflated. If anything, the latest tallies under-count the number of American lives claimed by the coronavirus pandemic -- a total that currently stands at over 185,000.

Second, the senator, who really ought to know better than to peddle stuff like this in public, was lending her support to ideas from the radical fringe. As the Washington Post noted, "Ernst’s comments echo conspiracy theories pushed by QAnon followers that have been debunked by doctors and public health experts.... Her inaccurate figure of 10,000 or fewer covid-19 deaths is similar to a widely spread QAnon meme that misinterpreted a recent study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."

And third, we're occasionally reminded that Joni Ernst, despite her popularity among Republicans on Capitol Hill, has repeatedly embraced some deeply weird right-wing ideas.

In 2014, for example, during her successful U.S. Senate campaign in Iowa, Ernst appeared at a Republican forum and warned about the United Nations possibly forcing farmers from their land as part of an elaborate "community planning" scheme. A few months later, Ernst claimed to be aware of secret proof of Iraq's Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction.

She also expressed support for legislation that would allow “local law enforcement to arrest federal officials" who attempt to implement the Affordable Care Act. That came after Ernst said she nearly always carries a firearm in order to defend herself and her family, "whether it’s from an intruder, or whether it’s from the government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important.”

In some cases, Ernst backed off of her provocative statements, in other cases, she didn't. Either way, with a record of extremism like this one, perhaps it's not too surprising the Iowa Republican is "skeptical" of medical providers and the coronavirus death toll?

Update: In the interest of context, it's worth emphasizing that Iowa's junior senator publicly questioned the veracity of COVID-19 fatalities while her home state struggles with one of the nation's most severe ongoing outbreaks.