In Debate, Ernst Regrets COVID Conspiracy ‘May Have Offended’ Doctors

When given the opportunity to pose a question to Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst during a debate on Saturday, Democrat Theresa Greenfield asked Ernst to apologize for furthering coronavirus conspiracy theories about the U.S. death toll and the role of health care professionals in diagnosing COVID-19 patients.

Though Ernst did apologize, she cushioned her response by saying she was “sorry that my words may have offended” health care workers.

Here is the exchange:

Greenfield: “She is not suitable to represent us in the United States Senate when it comes to health care because she pushes a conspiracy theory that suggests our doctors and nurses are liars and cheats, and that is wrong and it is inappropriate. And Sen. Ernst I want to ask, would you publicly apologize to our doctors and nurses tonight?”

Ernst: “I have apologized to our health care workers and I will apologize again tonight. I am so sorry that my words may have offended you. I know that you are tremendous workers. You are essential workers. You are providing care for our loved ones every single day, especially for folks like my sister and my brother that have preexisting conditions.”

When Ernst was asked by the moderator early in the debate to “clarify” her conspiratorial comments, Ernst said her remarks were “in response to a question” from an Iowan at an event she attended.

“It was really important to go ahead and respond to that, and it was the culmination of a number of conversations that we have had,” Ernst said, referring to coronavirus test results that are not always accurate. “Certainly we want to make sure that testing is accurate, being reported accurately, and I do use the CDC numbers.”

Greenfield continued to push the issue, telling voters Ernst “can’t be trusted on health care” because of her votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act and her “inappropriate” peddling of coronavirus conspiracy theories.

Ernst’s question to Greenfield centered on her time in real estate development, borrowing misleading allegations from the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Republican Party of Iowa, who have run ads trying to frame Greenfield as a “failed businesswoman.” Greenfield said she was “quite proud of my business record” and questioned why Ernst was criticizing her economic development efforts.

The WHO-TV debate was taped Saturday afternoon and aired this evening. It was the second meeting between the two U.S. Senate candidates. They are scheduled to debate for a final time Oct. 15.

Greenfield, who has led several polls in recent weeks, first called on Ernst to apologize early in September at the Polk County Steak Fry. On Sept. 15 she reiterated her points during a virtual press conference, telling reporters that Ernst “actively misleading the public regarding our health care and our health care system is wrong and it is not Iowa values.”

Ernst’s direct-to-camera concession was the first time she has publicly apologized for suggesting medical professionals are inflating the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths for financial gain, and saying she was “so skeptical” of the death toll and case counts.

Last month, Ernst privately apologized to the Iowa Medical Society “for what she described as misstatements on her behalf but stopped short of committing to a public apology,” according to an email the organization sent its members.

Ernst’s comments, made late in August at an event in Black Hawk County, drew nationwide attention in the midst of a neck and neck race against Greenfield.

She received swift condemnation from across Iowa’s medical community, members of which called her remarks “hurtful,” “offensive,” “false” and “dangerous.”

“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?” Ernst said at the Waterloo event, furthering an unproven claim that hospitals are inflating COVID-19 cases because Medicare reimburses health care providers at a higher rate for caring for COVID-19 patients.

While it is true that coronavirus legislation has made changes to reimbursement rates for COVID-19 patients on Medicare, as has reported, “multiple experts told us that such theories of hospitals deliberately miscoding patients as COVID-19 are not supported by any evidence.”

As reported by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Ernst also said she was “so skeptical” of the coronavirus death toll and case counts in the United States, perpetuating a false claim made by President Trump, QAnon and far-right commentators that the U.S. death toll is far lower than the reported 209,000.

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There is no evidence to suggest hospital administrators or medical professionals are exaggerating the number of COVID-19 patients they treat or how many have died due to complications from the respiratory disease. In fact, as The Washington Post reported in April, the death toll due to the coronavirus likely was undercounted in the early stages of the pandemic due to a lack of testing and people who died at home or in nursing homes without realizing they had contracted the virus.


By Elizabeth Meyer
Posted 10/3/20

Iowa Starting Line is an independently-owned progressive news outlet devoted to providing unique, insightful coverage on Iowa news and politics. We need reader support to continue operating — please donate here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage.

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