UI epidemiologist joins Iowa Democrats press conference criticizing Ernst for comments on COVID-19 death numbers

The Iowa Democratic Party held a press conference with medical professionals, including University of Iowa epidemiologist Christine Petersen, challenging Sen. Joni Ernst for insinuating health care providers are boosting COVID-19 numbers.


Hannah Kinson

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, talks about her personal struggles during the Iowa GOP Reception at Hughes Family Barn in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019.

Caleb McCullough, Politics Editor

Iowa Democrats, joined by University of Iowa epidemiology professor and director of the university’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases Christine Petersen, took aim at recent comments made by Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, where she expressed skepticism about the COVID-19 death toll in the U.S.

Ernst has faced criticism after saying she was skeptical of the official COVID-19 data at a campaign stop in Waterloo on Aug. 31.

“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 is quoted saying in the Waterloo Courier.

Later, Ernst issued a statement to several news outlets acknowledging the coronavirus death toll is more than 180,000, and saying she’s focused on getting resources to Iowa to fight the virus.

While the press conference Thursday was directed at Ernst’s comments on the coronavirus numbers, Petersen didn’t specifically mention Ernst, but said politicians need to take the pandemic seriously and political action can help reduce the spread.

Petersen also noted she was speaking as a private citizen and not in her role as a UI employee.

“The bottom line is we have an outbreak that has now killed over 1,200 people in Iowa,” she said. “And I don’t think anybody is going to disagree that this is a pandemic that is terrible.”

At the same event in Waterloo, Ernst made reference to recent statistic that 94 percent of people who died from the coronavirus had comorbidities.

“They’re thinking there may be 10,000 or less deaths that were actually singularly COVID-19. … I’m just really curious. It would be interesting to know that,” she told the Courier.

Petersen said it’s not surprising that people with COVID-19 also have other conditions, because health conditions often exacerbate other problems and can make someone more susceptible to the virus.

“To say that we’re somehow increasing the number in the COVID column by not calling it these other things, is just trying to say that as people we live very simple lives and you only ever get exposed to one thing, which just isn’t the way life happens,” she said.

Glenn Hurst, the chair of the Iowa Democratic Party Rural Caucus and a medical doctor in Minden, Iowa, leveled a more direct attack at Ernst. He said the severity of COVID-19 in the U.S. is a result of a slow federal response.

He also accused Ernst of politicizing the pandemic and pushing a conspiracy theory that the death statistics are inflated.

“This politician should have the guts to face Iowa providers and people we care for and tell them where the conspiracy really lies,” he said.

Ernst’s comments last week drew criticism from some Iowa health-care providers, including the Iowa Medical Society.

“It is incredibly disappointing to see comments attributed to Senator Ernst implying that the Iowa medical community is doing anything other than continuing to uphold its long track record of providing the highest quality of care and rising to the evolving challenges of the pandemic with the greatest of integrity,” the group wrote on Facebook on Sept. 2.

According to a report Thursday from Iowa Starting Line, Ernst apologized for her statement on a call with the Iowa Medical Society and committed to “further clarification to begin rebuilding patient trust in the provider community.”

Ernst’s staff had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.