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Indiana AG Todd Rokita alleges inflated COVID-19 stats in new release

 Attorney General Todd Rokita waves a release from his office criticizing state actions taken during COVID-19. (Screenshot from video)

Holcomb pans report, saying it has “zero” validity

At a South Bend political rally on Saturday, Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita accused public health entities across the state of submitting “faulty” and “unsound” data when it came to COVID-19’s death toll and positivity rate.

“This report … aims to educate the public about the state’s fundamental failures at the time to meet the challenges of a global pandemic with the best possible responsive action. But more importantly, this is not about who is right. It’s not about just casting blame. It is about accountability but it’s also about, and most importantly, not letting this happen again,” Rokita said. 

Gov. Eric Holcomb on Monday panned the report and reaffirmed his support for the state’s pandemic efforts.

“I have very little thoughts about his report. I stand by our accurate Department of Health reported numbers. They are accurate and I can’t speak to where he found his information. (He) certainly didn’t work with the Department of Health or with our office,” Holcomb said. 

The Saturday event coincided with the four-year anniversary of COVID-19 lockdowns. On Monday, Rokita published a 29-page “Analysis of COVID-19” release from his office that didn’t appear to include independent input from data scientists, medical professionals or name any contributing individuals — or their relevant credentials — other than Rokita. 

Additionally, it aimed to tell politicians that “we’re watching” to avoid a repeat of COVID-19, Rokita said, so “that they do not use inflated death counts and unsound positivity rates to enforce detrimental lockdowns, which have caused harm to Hoosiers’ mental and physical well-being.”

The document appears to largely be a follow-up and response to a 2021 WSBT interview in which Rokita questioned the Indiana Department of Health’s methodology for reporting COVID-19 positivity rates. The agency didn’t respond to a request for comment.

When asked if he thought there was any validity, Holcomb quickly said, “Zero.”

Rokita’s release

At the Saturday rally, Rokita largely read from his introduction to the release, which includes several footnotes to media reports and. He relitigated actions taken during the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically a shutdown period in 2020. 

Various research has affirmed the lingering toll of the pandemic, including learning losses and ongoing problems with chronic absenteeism, but others note that the youth mental health crisis started surging even before COVID-19

Rokita said his office reviewed nearly 145,000 death records, concluding that the state “over-reported COVID-19 deaths by 10.9% in 2020, 7% in 2021 and 12.5% in 2022” by counting deaths that he said should have been attributed to accidents, drownings and overdoses.

Rokita urged IDOH to review death certificate data, noting that his office didn’t have access to medical files. The office appears to have compared COVID-19 death counts reported by one arm of the IDOH with IDOH’s vital records database. But it acknowledged it was difficult to compare since it “could not match a death certificate to an individual” from the Management Performance Hub, which maintains datasets for the state.

Any difference in numbers between the two sets was reported as a “variance.”

The provocative release also accuses government officials of engaging in “massive censorship” “aimed at pressuring all-too-obliging social media companies to silence voices at odds with the government’s pandemic propaganda.”

A key point of contention by Rokita was the method used to calculate positivity rates, which at one point were used to place limits on gathering sizes to curb the spread of the highly contagious virus. 

He accused the state of inflating such rates, and thus delaying “re-openings” for Hoosiers in contrast to reports from health researchers from the Fairbanks School of Public Health, which he said reported lower positivity rates in a randomized survey. 

The school declined to comment on the release for this story. 

Positivity rates relied heavily on the number of people testing, meaning Hoosiers displaying symptoms were more likely to test and some — such as those in high exposure fields who were testing regularly — were counted multiple times. 

That, Rokita said, inflated the positivity rate. 

“Pandemics are inherently messy. And it’s unlikely or unreasonable for every state or county to get everything right,” Rokita acknowledged.

He went on to make pointed criticisms about remarks from Holcomb, with whom he has frequently sparred with, that the state’s executive leader had “no regrets” when it came to the state’s handling of COVID-19. 

“Gov. Holcomb and (Indiana State Health Commissioner) Dr. (Kris) Box may have ‘no regrets’ about the state’s response to the pandemic but compared to other states, Indiana got a lot wrong,” Rokita said. 

The concluding graphs of the release recall the 2021 comments from Rokita to South Bend TV station WSBT, where he first publicly questioned the state’s COVID-19 positivity rate calculations.

“Almost three years later, many of the concerns raised by (Rokita) and healthcare professionals remain unaddressed by public health officials,” the report read. “After considerable investments of taxpayer dollars in COVID-19 relief, the inconsistencies and inaccuracies outlined in this report still exist and (the Office of Attorney General) is unaware of attempts by public health officials to reconcile them.”

The final page of the report calls for the $225 million spent to shore up the state’s beleaguered public health system to be diverted to his recommendations instead. Those dollars are meant to assist with county-level public health departments, including: smoking cessation efforts, improving infant and maternal mortality rates and lead abatement.

Indiana Capital Chronicle Senior Reporter Casey Smith contributed to this story.

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