Virginia’s Department of Health and Misinformation

by Kerry Dougherty

With each passing day the Virginia Department of Health looks more like a purveyor of panic than an agency protecting the health of Virginians with factual, up-to-date information.

As the governor stubbornly clings to his overly-restrictive lockdowns and mask mandate, the department has proven useful to him as it supplies the public with half-baked information that often seems designed to frighten and obscure rather than inform.

Examples?

First, the inexplicable secrecy surrounding what can only be described as Virginia’s nursing home slaughter. Since the beginning of March, 879 nursing home residents have died of COVID-19. (Check back later today, that number will rise, as it has every single day so far.) In fact, almost 57 percent of all Virginia deaths are nursing home residents.

Yet just try to find out WHICH nursing homes are experiencing outbreaks and the total number of deaths inside each facility. This information is a closely guarded secret that only a few tenacious reporters have managed to uncover.

As The Virginia Mercury reported last week, when the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released a recent report detailing nursing home carnage there were problems with the information from Virginia. Of course.
The data was hotly anticipated.

But less than 24 hours after the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services released the names of nursing homes with COVID-19 cases, it became clear there were problems.

Case numbers for Virginia showed a sharp discrepancy with data from the state’s Department of Health. The dataset showed no information for 29 facilities. And one of the worst-ranked nursing homes in Virginia for COVID-19 deaths — a county-owned facility with a four-star rating from CMS — said the agency made a grave error in reporting.

There simply is no excuse for this level of incompetence.

And let’s not forget that the agency got caught last month combining antibody and Covid-19 tests.

It was May 13th when The Atlantic blew the cover off of the knob-turners in the health department. In a piece headlined, “How Virginia Juked Its COVID-19 Data: The state is combining results from viral and antibody tests in the same statistic. This threatens to confound America’s understanding of the pandemic”
The Atlantic said Virginia was producing “ information that is impossible to interpret.”

How helpful. Our health professionals at work.

Last week we found out that these same pros had also been juking the commonwealth’s positivity rates, by omitting more than 43,000 “mostly negative” Covid test results.

Seems two private labs had been faxing in test results. Health department personnel manually entered in the positive results — of course — but not the negative ones. The result was an artificially high positivity rate of almost 15 percent for the commonwealth. The rate of positive tests is one of the measures the governor is using to reopen the state. The negative tests were finally dumped in last week and the positivity rate dropped dramatically.

Virginia’s seven-day average for the percentage of positive cases reached a new low of 8% Friday after about 43,000 new coronavirus test results were added to the state’s official count, according to the Virginia Department of Health. The 8% positive rate is down from a peak of 22.2% on April 19.

Oh, and if you check the Department of Health’s website there’s this slice of misinformation:

That is NOT true. In fact there is growing evidence that people without symptoms are not spreading the virus. Even the World Health Organization’s top coronavirus expert said as much last week.

The organization attempted to walk back her statement the following day, but was unable to show any studies to the contrary.

And there’s this, from Virginia’s Health Commissioner, Dr. Norman Oliver. The Virginia Mercury reported that when he was asked about the dangers of COVID spread to protesters he compared them to front-line workers. Called them heroes, in fact.

No, I’m not kidding.

“In the same way that other people put themselves in a situation where they might have heightened exposure to COVID-19 but do so to help others, that we consider them to be heroes, it’s the same thing here.”

No, it’s not the same thing, Dr. Oliver.

You cannot compare doctors, nurses and EMTs who put their health in peril to help the sick, with protesters who violated the governor’s ban on gatherings of more than 10 people. Either large gatherings are dangerous or they aren’t.

It’s not his first totally inane statement. He should have been sacked back in April when he spread panic by declaring that business closures and lockdowns under the governor’s Phase One would last two years.

“Phase One will be a two-year affair,” Oliver told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “There are a lot of people working on this, and I hope they prove me wrong, but I don’t see it happening in less than two years.”

The thought of a two-year shutdown sent shockwaves around the commonwealth.

The next day the governor quickly refuted his health chief’s statements.

“Phase One will not last for two years,” the governor’s office said in a text message to The Richmond Times-Dispatch. “We need to keep working together to beat this disease — not spread fear and misinformation.”

Misinformation. The Department of Health’s specialty.

This column was published originally at www.kerrydougherty.com.

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