Here are the facts as we know them: The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 100,000 Americans, and of those more than 100 have lived in Frederick County.
Those grim numbers attempt to measure the toll of the COVID-19 virus. They give us a very good idea of just how bad things are today, and an indicator of just how bad things are likely to get in the coming months.
But they are imperfect numbers with an imperfect measurement. In the details are differences between agencies charged with keeping the count. And with that comes the potential for loud whispers from the dark corners of our society casting doubt and trying to spread disinformation.
When the Frederick County Health Department reported its 100th death from the disease on Friday, May 22, the Maryland Department of Health on that day was still reporting fewer deaths for the county, due to a discrepancy in how the two agencies report deaths. Even a week later, the state count was still less than 100.
The Frederick County Health Department reports deaths after it is informed by a facility, hospital or family member that someone it has been tracking due to a COVID-19 diagnosis has died, Rissah Watkins, director of planning, assessment and communications, told News-Post reporter Heather Mongilio.
The state waits until there is a complete death certificate before the health department will report it by county, said Maryland Department of Health spokesman Charlie Gischlar.
“Some data on deaths may be unavailable due to the time lag between the death, typically reported by a hospital or other facility, and the submission of the complete death certificate,” Gischlar said in an email. “When the death certificate is complete, the data is updated.”
But for those who want to deny the severity of the pandemic’s impact, this lag time provides an opening through which to peddle their wares. See, they say, the government doesn’t really know how many people have died.
From there it is a short walk to another pernicious lie, that many people who die were about to die anyway, so they should not really be counted as victims of the pandemic.
Earlier this month, Fox News analyst Brit Hume repeatedly suggested that people who have underlying conditions who die in the brief period after contracting COVID-19 might have in fact somehow died of those underlying conditions.
Deborah Birx, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, quickly disputed the theory, saying: “That underlying condition did not cause their acute death when it’s related to a COVID infection. In fact, it’s the opposite.”
Does a man in hospice who contracts the disease and dies in the last weeks of his life, or the woman in the nursing home who contracts it and dies in the last months of her life matter less than the person who dies in midlife? Of course not, we say.
This tendency to downplay the death toll has been strongest among people like Hume, supporters of President Trump who believe he is being unfairly criticized for his response to the pandemic. But it is dangerous to our nation.
Charles Seife, professor of journalism at New York University, told our reporter that discrepancies in data can affect public perceptions.
“The more discrepant sets of data that you have, the more differing signals that you get, the more latitude that people have to believe … whatever they want to believe, rather than what is actually externally happening,” he told our reporter.
As the number of COVID-19 deaths continue the relentless march past 100,000, attaching blame or deflecting it should be less important than acknowledging our tremendous national loss.
Families have had parents and grandparents torn away prematurely. Sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, friends and lovers – all are included in this terrible toll.
With Memorial Day itself just passed during this dark week, let’s try to put aside differences and remember what 100,000 deaths mean. It means 100,000 actual human beings are no longer with us, and that is a tragedy of Biblical proportions.