It’s not a debatable point — it’s fact, say doctors as Sen. Ron Johnson continues his disinformation campaign surrounding COVID-19.
Ron Johnson, Wisconsin’s Republican senator, again this week downplayed the severity of COVID-19 and pushed the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for coronavirus.
Johnson appeared Monday on “War Room: Pandemic,” a podcast hosted by Steve Bannon, the alt-right icon who briefly served as President Donald Trump’s chief strategist. The Daily Beast first reported on Johnson’s claims.
On the podcast, Johnson put on a greatest hits record of pandemic disinformation. He claimed COVID-19 is “not that much worse” than the flu and said Democrats and the press are stoking panic to defeat President Donald Trump in the November election.
“If people really looked at this disease — and it is worse than the flu, but it’s not that much worse — it shouldn’t be leading to these generalized shutdowns,” Johnson said.
That is, of course, completely false. Time and time again, COVID-19 has been shown to be more deadly and contagious than the flu, and researchers have concluded shutdowns saved millions of lives.
“There are right answers here,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, the top infectious disease expert with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. “The science is pretty clear when we look at the range of clinical illness on average in terms of risk of death, risk of hospitalization, this is about 10 to 20 times worse than the flu. … There’s really no question that it’s a substantially more dangerous virus than influenza and other things that we deal with every year.”
During last year’s flu season, 17,210 people in Wisconsin were infected, resulting in 167 deaths, according to the DHS. Since the coronavirus pandemic first reached Wisconsin in March, 56,940 have been infected and 970 have died, according to DHS data updated on Wednesday.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the R0, or basic reproductive number (a measurement that calculates the rate of transmission of an infectious disease), of COVID-19 is 5.7. That means a person infected with COVID-19 will infect an average of 5.7 other people.
For the flu, that number is 1.3, according to the New York Times.
Recent studies indicate the infection mortality rate for COVID-19 is between five and ten times that of the flu. Those studies have found the mortality rate is between 0.5 percent and 1 percent, according to the World Health Organization.
The flu, on the other hand, kills just over 0.1 percent of infected individuals, according to CDC statistics of every flu season since 2010-11. An average of about 37,400 people have died of the flu in the U.S. annually since the 2010-11 season, according to the CDC.
“It’s not a debatable point — it’s fact — COVID-19 is more lethal than influenza, and COVID-19 is more contagious than influenza,” said Dr. Jeffrey Pothof, chief quality officer for UW Health.
Coronavirus is killing so many Americans so quickly that it is on track to be the nation’s third-leading cause of death by year’s end, said Dr. Ajay Sethi, an infectious disease expert and associate professor of population health sciences for UW-Madison.
The top two killers in the U.S. are heart disease and cancer, according to the CDC. Sethi further noted that those designations are catchalls for all forms of cancer and heart disease, whereas COVID-19 is a single virus. Accidental injuries, the third most-common cause, accounted for about 170,000 deaths in 2017, the year the CDC most recently examined.
Even though the overwhelming majority of coronavirus patients survive the virus, it is becoming clear that the virus has severe lasting effects in some individuals from lingering brain fog to persistent shortness of breath. There is an alarming, growing list of documented side effects such as strokes in young people, potentially permanent lung scarring, and heart damage.
“For people who hear that it’s not a serious infection, that may be true for some, but they’re lucky,” Sethi said. “And because the science is still catching up, and it’ll take many years to fully understand that this infection does, I think it’s just better to be cautious.”
On hydroxychloroquine, Johnson said the drug’s use should be studied in trials, even though it has been the subject of various studies, almost all of which found the drug to be ineffective or even harmful to patients. He said the media and Democrats promote “panic porn” when they point out the lack of evidence of the drug’s efficacy.
“The risk is miniscule where the reward is huge,” Johnson claimed. “You could potentially be saving tens of thousands of lives. That’s obviously not the tact the mainstream press and Democrats are taking on this. They’re for the panic porn.”
It’s not the first time the senator has promoted the discredited drug. Johnson, along with ex-Gov. Scott Walker, published an op-ed last month in the Wisconsin State Journal in which they advocated for the drug’s use.
“The studies have been done and they pretty clearly show it doesn’t work,” Westergaard said. “Large, randomized placebo-controlled trials show it doesn’t have any benefit. Usually in medicine that’s the answer. We move on. It’s unclear, interesting, unfortunate that for whatever reason the science came in and we haven’t moved on.”
In Johnson and Walker’s op-ed, they cited “two recent observational studies” (that they did not name) that found the drug to be effective. One of the studies they may have been referring to, from the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, was quickly discredited by the scientific community. It is unclear what the other study they were referring to.
“If we took 1,000 people with COVID and gave them hydroxychloroquine, it is more likely that people would have adverse effects from taking it than people who would benefit from it,” Pothof said. “The scale weighs on the side of risk.”
Johnson has repeatedly downplayed the virus, previously saying the U.S. “went too far” with shutdowns and implied it was OK if “no more than 3.4 percent of our population” died from the virus if it meant saving the economy.
President Trump himself has stoked disinformation and misinformation about the coronavirus and hydroxychloroquine, turning a pandemic into a political spectacle. However, that is beginning to reverse as the pandemic continues to disrupt society and kill people. Even some Republican governors are moving to shut their state back down after premature reopening led to a spike
“Whenever I hear a person in authority, a position of authority or an elected official say something that’s kind of incorrect, I’m just reminded that this disease has unfortunately become politicized,” Sethi said. “I don’t know if they even believe what they’re saying.”