Fact check: Kansas senators make false claims about COVID-19 deaths, vaccines, PCR test

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TOPEKA — Sen. Mike Thompson said during a health committee hearing this week that he knows “for a fact” that deaths are being wrongly attributed to COVID-19 when there isn’t an autopsy performed to confirm the finding.

The Republican from Shawnee said he knows this based on data given to him by “the previous director” of the Kansas Department for Health and Environment.

As former KDHE secretary Lee Norman put it: “Sounds like Thompson’s usual horses***.”

Thompson and other senators used acting KDHE secretary Janet Stanek’s inaugural appearance before the Public Health and Welfare Committee this week as a forum to sow doubt about the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 and the safety and efficacy of vaccines for the disease.

Specific statements made by Thompson, Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson, and Sen. Beverly Gossage, R-Eudora, are false.

Thompson: “I know for a fact that at least 30% of the deaths listed without an autopsy are probably incorrect. That’s the data that was given to me by the previous director of the KDHE.”

Norman said this is “absolutely untrue.”

“As a matter of fact, I think that if anything the COVID deaths are underreported,” Norman said. “The numbers, whether it’s nationwide statistics or the state of Kansas, are the floor and not the ceiling.”

Physicians are responsible for determining a patient’s cause of death. By definition, Norman said, a patient has to have been infected with COVID-19 for it to be listed as a cause or contributing factor. An autopsy isn’t required, he said.

The governor’s office fired Norman in November for being outspoken about the pandemic.

Jennifer Bacani McKenney, a family physician from Fredonia, Kansas, waits to be introduced in the Kansas Senate during the Jan. 10 opening of the 2022 session. She is pictured with Tom Day, director of Legislative Administrative Services. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Gossage: “They test everyone that comes in the hospital for COVID. So if someone were to die of something else, but happen to have COVID, it would be considered COVID related.”

The premise is wrong, said Jennifer Bacani McKenney, a physician from Fredonia and president of the Kansas Academy of Family Physicians.

“No, we don’t test everyone that comes in to the hospital unless they have any concern for COVID (exposure) or symptoms that could possibly be COVID,” Bacani McKenney said. “Like if you have burning with urination or a broken arm, I am not going to test you for COVID.”

And COVID-19 isn’t listed as a cause of death just because a person tests positive for the disease.

That determination, Bacani McKenney said, can be tricky.

“For example, I had a patient who was on hospice for months and was stable but had end-stage heart failure,” Bacani McKenney said. “She was then infected with COVID at the long-term care facility where she lived. She didn’t die until maybe two weeks after her initial infection, but I put COVID on her death certificate because I strongly believe that she wouldn’t have died of heart failure had she not been infected with COVID. Her family was pissed that I even mentioned COVID. They were convinced it had nothing to do with it because she was out of the 10-day window, which makes no difference.”

She continued: “People think that we just take a big rubber stamp and stamp COVID on the death certificate and call it good, but there are eight or nine pages of information we have to go through to give all the information.”

Farah Ahmed, state epidemiologist with the Kansas Department for Health and Environment. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Steffen: “Not long ago, CDC came out with an advisory to health care facilities, testing facilities, in regards to the 2019 PCR test that said quit using it, you need to move away from it, and then indicated that it really was not able to differentiate between the COVID and a whole lot of other viruses, which explained why we had no flu last year.”

Farah Ahmed, the state epidemiologist at KDHE, answered this bluntly during the hearing: “That’s not exactly what the CDC said.”

A polymerase chain reaction test detects specific genetic material. The tests referenced by Steffen specifically looked for coronavirus and weren’t capable of detecting influenza.

The CDC’s concerns weren’t related to the accuracy of the 2019 PCR test. Ahmed said the CDC instead favored a new test that could detect both COVID-19 and the flu.

Norman said fewer people were infected with the flu last season because more people got a flu shot, while also benefiting from wearing a mask and social distancing.

“It was immensely successful in preventing flu, the things that were put in place to prevent COVID,” Norman said.

Former health secretary Lee Norman at his Kansas City, Missouri, apartment. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Thompson: “What I’m getting at here is that the perception is the vaccines are safe and effective. …  Most people believe these things are safe and in fact we know people are getting COVID. We know people are actually dying from these shots.”

Of the 529 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered in the United States, the CDC has identified nine deaths attributed to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and documented rare cases of side effects.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 is a leading cause of death in Kansas and the United States, having killed more than 7,000 Kansans and 860,000 Americans in two years.

Thompson previously has referenced the CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, where more than 11,000 people have reported deaths attributed to COVID-19 vaccines. Those reports have not been verified.

Here’s how Norman explained it: If you wave a dead cat over someone’s head, and then they die, people will blame the dead cat.

“People will put that together, and it’s correlation maybe but not causation,” he said.

Bacani McKenney said the likelihood that a COVID-19 vaccine caused a death reported in the VAERS system is “close to zero.”

The effectiveness of the vaccines is evident in the high number of unvaccinated people who are being hospitalized across the country, Bacani McKenney said.

“The vaccine does not promise to stop a person from getting the infection,” she said. “Rather, it stops them from serious illness, hospitalization and death. And that’s what we’re seeing with vaccines and especially boosters. We know people are going to get sick even after they are vaccinated and boosted. But they are not going to end up in my hospital, most likely.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Click here to see the latest COVID-19 stats for Lawrence, the Lawrence school district, and Douglas County on the Times’ dashboard.
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