How Accurate Are The State’s Wuhan Virus Numbers, Anyway?

A story in the New Orleans Advocate indicates there is reason to begin doubting the accuracy of the reporting of virus cases and deaths coming out of Louisiana’s Department of Health – something on the mind of a growing number of public officials we’ve talked to.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards on Thursday said a 17-year-old New Orleans boy who had tested positive for the novel coronavirus and died is proof “that everyone is at risk” from the respiratory disease the highly-contagious virus can cause.

Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office spokesman Jason Melancon identified the teen as Jaquan Anderson, who died Sunday. But while Melancon said Anderson had tested positive for COVID-19, he added that the cause and manner of the teen’s death remained under investigation.

Anderson’s father, Kevin Moran, said Thursday that he understood his son had died from “heart failure.” He said he was surprised at the suggestion his son may have died as a result of COVID-19 and disputed that was a certainty.

“It was heart failure,” Moran said. “People don’t want to let you heal. … I’m so upset.”

Louisiana officials’ practice is to include anyone who tested positive for COVID-19 and died in their tally of deaths related to the coronavirus, which on Thursday stood at 83 statewide. It is possible that individuals on the list died as a result of another condition that they had in addition to COVID-19.

If you’ll remember, this practice of essentially inflating the number of deaths attributed to the virus isn’t just a Louisiana thing. In Italy, the virus hotspot to which Edwards has continuously compared the Bayou State’s outbreak, it’s been revealed that only some 12 percent of fatalities reported as coronavirus deaths can be said to primarily have come from the virus – in the other 88 percent, some other co-morbidity is more likely what killed the patient.

Now we know the Louisiana Department of Health is doing the same thing.

How many of the 83 reported coronavirus deaths are actually deaths from coronavirus and not something else? In fact, how many of those deaths do we actually know were even positive for coronavirus?

We’re told that legislators who have asked the Governor’s office and LDH have not been able to get a straight answer on a key question – namely, what constitutes a “positive case” of the virus in the LDH’s tally?

There is word that for at least a sizable stretch of the state’s current testing regime, anyone who is very symptomatic of the Wuhan virus and is tested has been counted as a positive case, though that practice might not be the case any longer. If true, that would explain why, until a few days ago, Louisiana was running an astonishingly high ratio of 22 percent positive in its test reporting, more than double the 10 percent ratio nationwide. That number has since settled just under 13 percent, and more recent test results show the state dropping under 10 percent in positive cases.

Are negative tests being dropped out of the positive numbers and being replaced with positives generated by increased testing in order to keep Louisiana’s numbers growing?

At this point you might be asking why Edwards would want to inflate the numbers.

Well, for one thing it makes the state money. This week Edwards managed to wrangle a Major Disaster Declaration out of the federal government, which means 100 percent of what the state spends on its coronavirus response will be covered by the feds. Without scary caseload and death numbers he probably doesn’t get that declaration.

And for another, Edwards has managed to burgeon his image with appearances on national cable news programs in the last week talking about Louisiana’s viral outbreak.

For a third thing, there is the whole Katrina factor. Yesterday New Orleans mayor LaToya Cantrell did her best Ray Nagin impersonation, blasting President Trump and the federal government for its response to the virus and howling that Trump’s lack of seriousness about the virus was the reason she didn’t shut down Mardi Gras. It’s a fairly familiar playbook – blame the feds for a natural event making life tough for politicians from a certain political party, particularly when the feds are controlled by the other party. The response to Hurricane Katrina set the template for doing that, and it looks like there is something of an effort to reprise it here. The more cases and deaths in New Orleans, the better.

And of course there is the looming battle at the Legislature, in which Edwards is going to demand a larger and more expensive state government than the strong GOP majorities in the House and Senate are going to want to give him. Other major items like tort reform will certainly play a part in that coming free-for-all. The current session must end by June 1 and it’s in recess while the state is shut down; there is a certain degree of running out the clock and compressing the legislative agenda achievable in the session which becomes defensible the more cases and deaths the official tally shows.

Currently, Louisiana sits at a 3.6 percent death rate from the virus. That’s an astonishingly high number; nationally, the death rate is only 1.5 percent. Louisiana’s neighbors are posting numbers which look nothing like ours; while Louisiana has 83 deaths out of 2,305 reported cases, in Texas, with five times the population, there are 23 deaths out of 1,662 cases, or a 1.4 percent death rate. In Mississippi, which studies have shown is the only state with a more unhealthy population than Louisiana’s, there are just six deaths out of 485 cases (1.2 percent). Florida, where the population is known to skew toward the elderly (and with five times our people), has 29 deaths in 2,484 cases (1.17 percent).

You can bend yourself into knots trying to explain why our numbers are so different than theirs. The easiest explanation is that Louisiana is inflating its death rate by counting people like Jaquan Anderson as coronavirus fatalities.

Or worse, by counting people like Natasha Ott, the 39-year old social worker at a New Orleans HIV clinic who died suddenly after being tested for the virus but before that test came back negative. At one time the state listed a 39-year-old from Orleans Parish as one of the dead, but as of yesterday that entry no longer exists. As our readers know, the unfortunate case of Ott’s demise was reported in The Advocate as a coronavirus story, only for the paper to walk it back amid jeers from people all over the state and Attorney General Jeff Landry in particular. It would make sense if the paper had been fed Ott’s story by someone at LDH as an effort to impress upon the people of the state that “perfectly healthy thirty-somethings” were at grave risk from the Wuhan virus.

Or perhaps not.

Let’s keep in mind that Edwards has a pre-existing condition of his own here – namely, that he’s established an unmistakable track record of flat-out lying to suit his agenda, and specifically, that his lies are of the fearmongering species. Edwards was going to have to cancel college football, after all, if he didn’t get a major tax increase. If his budget was to be cut by the legislature he would have to evict seniors from nursing homes. Last year, his camp accused Ralph Abraham of running an opioid pill mill, then he accused Eddie Rispone of aiming to end food stamps, school lunches, homestead exemptions, supplemental pay for police and a few other lies designed to frighten voters into re-electing him. So inflating virus numbers as a defense for his shutting down the state’s economy and demanding it stay in crisis mode would hardly be out of character for this governor.

Whether that’s what’s really going on here at this point or not, what we’re hearing is there is a definitive lack of transparency coming out of the state’s coronavirus response. Consequently, we’re passing along a warning not to accept those numbers at face value.



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