Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, Republicans have settled on a position that seems just a smidge incredible: There is no pandemic. Downplaying the impact of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the disease that it generates has been standard Republican operating procedure since Donald Trump insisted that cases would soon be “down to zero” and that COVID-19 would go away “like magic.” But at this point, with 860,000 dead Americans and over 5.5 million lives lost around the world, in the midst of a wave of disease sending record numbers to hospitals, pandemic denial seems like something that should be impossible.
It’s not. Republicans have returned to the idea that people are just, you know, dying. And that COVID-19 has nothing to do with it.
It’s another trip through irresponsibility, delusion, and jackassery that started with a badly edited interview, passed through a now deleted Texas Sen. Ted Cruz tweet, and spawned a million gloating I-told-you-so claims on Facebook. Since then other Republicans, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, have doubled down on the claim, and the Republican National Committee (RNC) is proceeding at warp nine into conspiracy space.
Like so many of the claims during the last five years, this one started from a misunderstanding, then pivoted to a deliberate lie. It can be fully expected to become the accepted “truth” for Republicans moving forward. Here’s the three-step process into how “not from COVID-19, but with COVID-19” became the new Republican baseline.
Step 1: ABC makes a criminally bad edit of an already bad interview
To say that Rochelle Walensky’s brief term as director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been marked by poor communication is something of an understatement. Communicating with dolphins is only slightly less frustrating.
It’s not so much that the CDC has been wrong, but under Walensky the agency has issued unnecessary guidance that includes caveats and details almost certain to be steamrolled into a mush of confusion. For example, the idea that people who were asymptomatic but who tested positive for COVID-19 could cease self-isolation after five days if they continued to wear a mask. This was predictably turned into “CDC cuts COVID-19 quarantine to five days” by the media within 30 seconds of its issuance.
But perhaps no single statement has done more damage the CDC’s reputation than an interview on ABC News. In that interview, Walensky was asked about the results of a new study showing that vaccines were very effective in preventing severe illness. Here’s her response as it appeared on ABC News.
Walensky: “The overwhelming number of deaths, over 75 percent, occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities. So really, these are people who are unwell to begin with. And yes, really encouraging news in the context of omicron. This means not just to get your primary series, but to get your booster, and yes, we’re really encouraged by these results.”
There were any number of reasons to be upset by this statement. For one thing, Walensky appears to be not just brushing off people with long-term illness or conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19, but actually gloating about how deaths are restricted to people who were “unwell to begin with.” Disability advocates—and a lot of people who suffer from issues such as diabetes and high blood pressure—were justifiably outraged.
However, it turns out that ABC made an absolutely egregious edit. This was Walensky’s actual reply to the question about the study.
Walensky: “You know, really important study, if I may just summarize it. A study of 1.2 million people who were vaccinated between December and October, and demonstrated that severe disease occurred in about 0.015 percent of the people who received their primary series. And death in 0.003 percent of those people. The overwhelming number of deaths, over 75 percent, occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities. So really, these are people who are unwell to begin with. And yes, really encouraging news in the context of omicron. This means not just to get your primary series, but to get your booster, and yes, we’re really encouraged by these results.”
All of that went on the cutting room floor at ABC. Clearly, what Walensky was actually addressing was the results of a single study, a study that showed just how tremendously effective the vaccines really are.
However, the complaints of disability advocates remain absolutely valid, because there was no reason for Walensky to characterize the extremely low number of deaths found in this study in the way she did. It added no value to her response. In fact, by answering in this way, Walensky greatly undercut the point that she was trying to make. That point was not “only sick people died” but “vaccines are tremendously effective.” Walensky’s response remains a masterclass in awful.
But ABC’s editing made everything 1,000 times worse, and queued up exactly what came next.
Step 2: Context gets shredded by the RNC
Those watching the ABC interview might still have picked up on the fact that Walensky’s statement, no matter how mangled, was characterizing only vaccinated individuals in one study. But when those words hit social media, context went out the window. As far as the Internet was concerned, this was the beginning and the end of what Walensky had to say.
Granted, that kind of sentence or even phrase-level cherry-picking has been standard RNC practice for years, but ABC really helped them out by dropping all context from Walensky’s reply. As a result, social media soon flooded with Republicans claiming that 75 percent of all the people who have died from COVID-19 have been people who were very unwell to begin with. That prompted, including other things, this now-deleted Cruz tweet.
Step 3: Double-down and carry on
Cruz may have backed away from that tweet after the editing fingers of both the RNC and ABC were made clear, but don’t expect him to stay backed up. Since that initial post, the RNC has doubled down. And tripled down. In their latest tweet, they’re back to the language that Republicans used in the opening days of the pandemic as deaths began to pile up across the country. People didn’t die from COVID-19, says the RNC. They’re just sick people who happened to die with COVID-19.
Rubio then took this to the next logical step with a claim that the thousands of people being hospitalized during the Omicron spike aren’t being hospitalized because of COVID-19.
Except that as the article makes clear, there are 145,982 people hospitalized in U.S. from COVID-19. Not from “reasons unrelated to COVID.” There’s absolutely nothing in the article cited, or in any other source, to back up Rubio’s statement.
It doesn’t matter, because the Republican Party has only one reaction to being found wrong on any point: tactical extremism. Rather than admit the claims about people dying from COVID-19 are the results of a series of bad, out of context edits, expect Republicans to harden on this position as a baseline. Expect renewed claims that the CDC is greatly exaggerating the threat of COVID-19, as well as more of those videos where people invade their local hospital to “prove” that there’s no wave of COVID-19 patients.
Expect more resistance to vaccination. Expect more denial of reason. Expect more deaths.
All brought to you by the modern Republican Party, the best friend a virus ever had.