In May 2020, Elon Musk appeared on Joe Rogan’s show to discuss his new baby, Warren Buffett, and coronavirus lockdowns.
Musk, an early opponent of lockdowns, said the way COVID cases, hospitalization, and deaths were being tracked was highly problematic. He began by pointing out governments were counting some people who never were diagnosed with COVID as COVID cases, before making a claim that even Joe Rogan found too hard to believe.
MUSK: If somebody dies, was COVID a primary cause of the death or not? I mean, if somebody has COVID, gets eaten by a shark, we find their arm, their arm has Covid, it’s going to get recorded as a Covid death.
ROGAN: Is that real?
ROGAN: Not that bad, but heart attacks, strokes (cross talk) … Cancer.
MUSK: If you get hit by a bus, go to the hospital and die, and they find that you have COVID, you will be recorded as a COVID death.
Rogan: Why would they do that though?
‘It’s Still Listed as a COVID Death’
Why is an important question, but first it must be asked—Was what Musk said actually true?
As difficult as it may be to believe, the answer is yes. From the beginning of the pandemic, there has been no real effort to distinguish between dying from COVID and dying with COVID.
Sometimes public health officials made this crystal clear.
“If you died of a clear alternate cause, but you had Covid at the same time, it’s still listed as a Covid death,” Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the director of Illinois's Department of Public Health, explained to reporters in an April 2020 press conference.
In a May 2021 CNN interview, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky gave a similar definition while discussing 223 fatal vaccine breakthrough cases, noting that “many hospitals are screening people for COVID when they come in,” and not all of these victims “actually died of COVID.”
More recently, Walensky noted that the vast majority of the relatively few fully vaccinated people who’ve died “of COVID” had no fewer than four comorbidities—yet they are still considered COVID deaths. (Viral claims that Walensky said the vast majority of all COVID deaths had “at least four comorbidities” are false, fact checkers correctly pointed out.)
Readers would be right to point out that even dying with several comorbidities is a bit different than declaring a victim of a shark attack a “COVID death” just because the person had the virus, as Musk did to Rogan.
To my knowledge, nobody killed by a shark was declared a COVID death, but it’s not difficult to find documented examples that are nearly as preposterous—such as the Florida man in his 20s who died in a motorcycle accident—and was declared a COVID death.
“You could actually argue that it could have been the COVID-19 that caused him to crash. I don’t know the conclusion of that one,” Orange County Health Officer Dr. Raul Pino told an Orlando news station.
After widespread mockery, the motorcyclist's death "was reviewed and he was taken off the list for COVID fatalities."
Elon Musk had it 100% right from the beginning. https://t.co/zrSOLPypIm— Jon Miltimore (@miltimore79) January 11, 2022
‘Why Would They Do That Though?’
None of this is to say that COVID-19 is not very real or very deadly. It clearly is.
The point is, the data we’re collecting are giving us a distorted representation of COVID-19 realities. From the beginning of the pandemic, some epidemiologists sounded the alarm on this issue.
In a March 17 STAT article, Dr. John Ioannidis, the C.F. Rehnborg Chair in Disease Prevention at Stanford University, warned that COVID-19 could turn into a “once-in-a-century evidence fiasco.” Ioannidis worried central planners were making sweeping and reflexive changes while relying on data that was flawed or insufficient.
This brings us back to an important question.
“Why would they do that though?” Rogan asked Musk, who said if you get hit by a bus and have COVID, you’d be registered as a COVID death.
The answer may lie in basic incentives. Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s right hand man, had a saying.
“Show me the incentives and I will show you the outcome,” Munger said.
As Musk points out, federal legislation created an incentive structure that was problematic.
“The stimulus bill that was intended to help with the hospitals that were being overrun with Covid patients created an incentive to record something as Covid that is difficult to say no to, especially if your hospital’s going bankrupt for lack of other patients,” Musk explained to Rogan.
“So, the hospitals are in a bind right now. There’s a bunch of hospitals, they’re furloughing doctors, as you were mentioning. If your hospital’s half full, it’s hard to make ends meet. So now you’ve got like, ‘If I just check this box, I get $8,000. Put them on a ventilator for five minutes, I get $39,000 back. Or, I got to fire some doctors.’ So, this is a tough moral quandary.”
Rogan asked Musk what the solution to all this was.
“Let’s clear up the data,” Musk responded.
In the third year of this pandemic, it appears some people might be prepared to finally heed Musk’s advice.
In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul recently announced hospitals must begin to provide separate data indicating which of the people hospitalized with COVID were admitted for other reasons. The order provided important information: it turns out that out of the some 11,500 COVID-19 patients recently hospitalized in the Empire State, 43 percent were admitted for something other than COVID-19.
There also appears to be signs the CDC is finally acknowledging the deficiencies in its own reporting.
"Do you know how many of the 836,000 deaths in the U.S. linked to COVID are from COVID or how many are with COVID, but they had other comorbidities? Do you have that breakdown?" Bret Baier asked Walensky on "Fox News Sunday."
Walensky did not, but after some hemming and hawing she offered a notable response.
“Those data will be forthcoming," she told Baier.
This is good news. The only question is, why didn’t public officials listen to Elon Musk two years ago?