The Hard Facts on COVID-19 Science Denial

By Anna Agresti & James D. Agresti Published on August 26, 2020

In a Washington Post op-ed titled “More Republican Casualties From Trump’s Coronavirus Denial,” columnist Jennifer Rubin claims that “red states” — specifically Texas, Arizona and Arkansas — are “paying the price” for their “arrogant and reckless disregard of expert advice.

In concert with Rubin, multitudes of reporters and commentators have declared that Republican governors have worsened the effects of COVID-19 by “denying science” and reopening “too early.” Meanwhile, they have praised Democratic governors, like Andrew Cuomo of New York and Phil Murphy of New Jersey, for their handling of the pandemic.

By misusing anecdotes and stripping data of vital context, these media figures have woven a narrative that is at stark odds with reality. As documented below with credible primary sources, the hard facts show that:

  • the C-19 death rates in Republican states regularly condemned by media outlets remain far lower than in NY and NJ after more than four months of doomsday projections for Republican states.
  • Republican governors ridiculed by the media have acted in accord with the facts of science.
  • Democratic governors cheered by the media have enacted policies that flout some of the most important scientific facts about C-19.

The Bottom Line is Deaths, Not Cases

On a near-continual basis since the outset of the pandemic, Rubin and many of her media colleagues have cited rising numbers of C-19 cases to castigate Republican governors for mishandling the pandemic. A small sampling of their rhetoric includes statements like these:

  • “In Arkansas (home to Trump sycophant Sen. Tom Cotton), a debacle is unfolding.”
    — Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post
  • Americans didn’t fail the COVID-19 test; Republicans did….”
    — Paul Krugman of the New York Times
  • Republicans “continue to peddle denial for political reasons.”
    — Fabiola Santiago of the Miami Herald
  • If “coronavirus has revealed anything, it’s that proud ignorance and do-nothing dangerousness is largely a Republican problem.”
    — Jill Filipovic writing at CNN
  • The “president and his Republican allies had urged people to return to normal” in TX, FL and AZ, and are therefore to blame for rising case numbers.”
    — Michael Shear and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times
  • Because Republican governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis “largely ignored” the “road map to safety,” cases are now “exploding.”
    — Joanne Kenen of Politico

Yet, more than a month after the accusations above were leveled, the C-19 death rate — or the portion of the population killed by the disease — in the state of:

  • New York is 2.7 times greater than in Arizona, 3.8 times greater than in Florida, 4.8 times greater than in Texas and 8.4 times greater than in Arkansas.
  • New Jersey is 2.8 times greater than in Arizona, 4.0 times greater than in Florida, 5.1 times greater than in Texas and 8.9 times greater than in Arkansas.


Of course, death rates could rise in the future, but there is a lag of about 15 days between C-19 symptom onset and death — and after more than 120 days of persistent media alarmism — there is no indication that Florida or any other Republican state is in danger of reaching the level of carnage in NY and NJ.

On their own, death rates don’t prove that Republicans have done a better job of handling C-19 than Democrats. This is because association does not prove causation, and numerous other factors are at play. However, preventing deaths is the ultimate goal of C-19 policies, and death rates undercut much of the media hysteria over rising cases in Republican states.

One key fact revealed by death rates is that there is not a fixed relationship between the number of C-19 cases and deaths. For example, the people currently contracting C-19 in Florida are relatively young, and thus, they are far less likely to die from it. During Florida’s first infection peak in April, about 25% of reported C-19 cases were among people aged 65 and older, but this figure plunged to 13% by August 5.

Death rates can also cut through the noise caused by changes in testing capacity. This is important because the vast majority of C-19 cases are mild or asymptomatic, and greater testing rates can detect such cases and distort trends. Between April 1 and July 13, the number of tests per day in Florida increased by 6.5 times. This can create an illusion of “exploding” cases when, in fact, Florida’s tame death rate suggests that a sizable portion of the rise in cases is from more testing, which is a positive development.

The Scientific Approach

In addition to ignoring death rates, Rubin and others have smeared Republican governors by calling them “science deniers” who defied “expert advice.” In reality, these governors have acted in accord with science, which is not the claims of cherry-picked “experts” but the “systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation” (Webster’s College Dictionary).

States like Florida and Texas managed C-19 by focusing on the vulnerable and giving healthy people more flexibility to live their lives. This strategy is rooted in the following scientific facts:

  • Younger people are far less likely to die from C-19 than the common hazards of life for which governments don’t lock them down:
    • Since the outset of the pandemic on March 11 through July 25, merely 1.0% of all deaths of U.S. children aged 5-14 years have involved C-19. Among 15-24 year olds, this figure is only 1.7%, and among 25-34 year olds, it is just 3.9%.
    • People under age 49 who catch C-19 and show symptoms are about 26 times less likely to die of it than those aged 65 and older.
  • Because C-19 is highly contagious, it will ultimately spread if lockdowns are relaxed in the absence of vaccines or herd immunity, regardless of whether states open “early” or not:
    • Even the Imperial College, which provided the impetus for mass lockdowns, admitted that the “more successful a strategy is at temporary suppression, the larger the later epidemic is predicted to be in the absence of vaccination, due to lesser build-up of herd immunity.”
    • The explicit goal of lockdowns was to “flatten the curve” and “slow the spread” of the virus so that cases would “stretch out across a longer period of time” and not “overwhelm” hospitals. This is illustrated by the widely cited “flatten the curve” charts, which show that lockdowns don’t reduce the number of people who catch the virus but extend the timeframe over which they catch it.
  • Second waves of infections are not limited to Republican states that opened “early” but have occurred in places like California (a heavily Democratic state that has barely loosened its lockdown), Spain, France, Israel and Australia.
  • Absent a vaccine, the only way for people to become immune to C-19 is to catch the virus and recover. A 2012 paper in the journal PLoS One about “Immunity in Society” explains that once a high enough percentage of the population has become immune, an “immune firewall” is created, preventing further transmission to those who are vulnerable.
  • Lockdowns cause enormous suffering and death via consequences like unemployment, social isolation, delayed medical care, depression and anxiety:
    • The United Nations reported that C-19 lockdowns are creating lethal mental health problems through an array of mechanisms like separating people “from loved ones” and “vast numbers” of lost livelihoods.
    • A 2011 meta-analysis in the journal Social Science & Medicine found that “unemployment is associated with a substantially increased risk of death among broad segments of the population.”
  • Government-mandated and personal decisions to delay medical care because of C-19 have postponed tumor removals, cancer screenings, heart surgeries and treatments for other ailments that can lead to early death if not addressed in a timely manner.
  • To quantify just one element of the death tradeoff for lockdowns, Just Facts conducted a rigorous study that found anxiety related to C-19 will destroy at least seven times more years of life than can possibly be saved by lockdowns. After reviewing this study, the accomplished psychiatrist Joseph P. Damore, Jr. concluded that it “thoroughly answers the question about the cure being worse than the disease.”

Republican states that crafted their C-19 policies around the scientific facts above have drastically lower death rates than the oft-praised states of New York and New Jersey. Again, this association does not prove that Republican governors managed the virus better than their Democratic counterparts. However, it is flagrantly deceitful to report that Republican states “peddle denial,” put “the economy over health,” or failed “the COVID-19 test,” when in fact, their death rates are extremely low, and their actions align with crucial scientific facts.

The Real Science Deniers

In the same piece in which she vilifies “science-denying Republican leaders,” Rubin accuses them of having “blood on their hands” because they made “premature, rash and uninformed” decisions that led to “unnecessary deaths.” Yet, this description actually applies to the decisions of prominent Democrats, namely Phil Murphy and Andrew Cuomo (who Rubin lauds).

Both Murphy and Cuomo forced nursing homes to admit and readmit people who were infected with C-19. This mandate was at direct odds with two essential scientific facts that were widely known since the outset of the pandemic:

  1. Elderly people and those with chronic ailments — who are the very definition of nursing home residents — are extremely vulnerable to the virus.
  2. The virus is highly transmissible, and thus, it can easily sweep through large groups of sickly and/or aged people who live together.

Including an estimated 18 days between infection and death, over 5,900 nursing home patients in NY and 3,400 in NJ were lost by the time Cuomo and Murphy rescinded their policies.

Furthermore, the NY nursing home death toll is greatly understated because Cuomo’s Department of Health excludes residents who catch the disease in a nursing home but die “outside of the facility.” Thus, the official figure may undercount the actual number by thousands of deaths.

While rejecting calls for an independent investigation, Cuomo has repeatedly blamed others for the nursing home carnage in his state, but none of his explanations hold water:

  • Cuomo first faulted nursing homes, stating that they were only required to readmit C-19 patients “if they have the ability to provide the adequate level of care.” However, Cuomo’s executive order:
    • unequivocally states in underlined text, “No resident shall be denied re-admission or admission to the NH [nursing home] solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19.”
    • often made it impossible for homes to know if they could provide appropriate care by banning them from “requiring a hospitalized resident who is determined medically stable to be tested for COVID-19 prior to admission or readmission.”
    • never mentioned or implied that it is illegal under NY State law for nursing homes to accept someone they cannot care for properly.
  • Cuomo then claimed that his order “followed President Trump’s CDC guidance,” but the truth is that this guidance:
    • doesn’t recommend putting C-19 patients into nursing homes.
    • states that C-19 patients “should go to a facility with adequate personal protective equipment supplies and an ability to adhere to infection prevention….”
  • Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa later said that his policy was “in-line directly” with directives from the Trump administration’s Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), but to the contrary:
    • 12 days before Cuomo’s order, CMS warned that homes must be “vigilant in identifying any possible infected individuals” and “follow CDC guidance.”
    • CMS administrator Seema Verma directly responded to DeRosa’s claims, stating that the CMS was “clear and unmistakable” in stating that nursing homes should reject people that they cannot care for, and “any insinuation to the contrary is woefully mistaken at best and dishonest at worst.”
  • After that, Cuomo claimed that NY “had more people die” because the Trump administration “missed the boat and never told us that this virus was coming from Europe and not from China.” In reality, the Trump administration issued a near-total ban on travel from Europe on the same day that the World Health Organization declared C-19 a pandemic (March 11). Yet, Cuomo did not announce a stay-at-home order until more than a week later on March 20.
  • Finally, Cuomo’s Department of Health published a report that returned to blaming nursing homes while claiming that his policy was not a “significant factor” in fatalities. However, the report:
    • misinterprets association as causation by arguing that a “link between the timing of staff infection and nursing home fatalities” proves the nursing home staff transmitted the virus to residents.
    • uses a false measure of timing based on the number of homes with an infected staff member instead of the actual number of infected staff members.
    • uses grossly incomplete data that excludes residents who caught the virus in nursing homes but died “outside of the facility,” a figure that could number in the thousands.
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So in the face of proven scientific facts and crystal clear guidance from the CDC and CMS, these Democrat governors forced C-19 carriers into the vicinity of the people who are most vulnerable to it. Yet, Rubin, cheers Cuomo for taking “responsibility,” his “remarkable success” in battling C-19, and his “effective takedown” of President Trump’s science “denial.”


The impact of the media’s misinformation stretches well beyond politics and can have deadly consequences for American citizens. For a prime example, NJ Advance Media published an article by reporter Steve Politi titled, “‘I Hate Florida!’ How the Coronavirus Convinced One NJ Snowbird to Fly Back Home.” Politi writes:

  • “Let’s face it, who among us hasn’t shaken our heads in disgust at Florida during this pandemic?”
  • “The partying spring-breakers. The slow-to-act governor. The science deniers.”
  • “The hashtag #FloridaMorons was trending on Twitter over the weekend when — days after the state recorded its highest death toll — thousands of people flocked to the just-reopened beaches.”

Politi then applauds a NJ native’s rant against Florida and her decision to move back to NJ, thus implying that Jersey is much safer than Florida. Yet, Politi fails to mention that the C-19 death rate was 15.3 times higher in New Jersey than in Florida when he wrote this article.

Despite Florida’s large elderly population, who are at a much higher risk to die of C-19, the state’s death rate is still 4.0 times lower than New Jersey. This is nearly five months since the Miami Herald editorial board lectured Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to “act like you give a damn” about C-19 and “quickly” seek guidance from the governors of NY, CT and CA. Since the time that the Herald gave this advice on March 22, COVID-19 deaths rates have progressed as follows:


Rather than painting an accurate picture of reality, Rubin and many other people in the media have spread a counter-factual narrative that Republican states, like FL and TX, have mishandled C-19 while Democratic states like NY and NJ have done wonderfully. Masses of Americans make crucial life decisions based on what the media reports, and twisting facts is the worst possible way to ensure their health and safety.


Anna Lynn is a writer and researcher for Just Facts, a think tank dedicated to publishing rigorously documented facts about public policy issues. James D. Agresti is the president of Just Facts.

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