Editorial: The danger of portraying COVID-19 as political issue rather than health crisis

President Donald Trump's implicit assault on health care institutions last weekend could be forgiven as just mean-spirited politics if that's all it were. But his insinuation that doctors and hospitals are distorting their reports on COVID-19 infections in order to make more money has the potential to cause real harm.

"If somebody's terminally ill with cancer and they have COVID, we report them. And you know doctors get more money and hospitals get more money. Think of this incentive," the president said at a rally in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Saturday.

The comment further advanced the myth widely debunked - by the nation's top COVID-19 fighter on down the scientific ladder - that patients with co-morbidities are improperly classified as COVID-19 victims. Dr. Anthony Fauci and other medical experts note that if it's COVID-19 that leads to the death of a patient with cancer, heart disease or some other co-morbidity, it is just as correctly and appropriately listed as the cause as if, say, a car crash were what killed the person.

Moreover, as Denise Chamberlain, chief financial officer at DuPage County-based Edward-Elmhurst Health, told our Jake Griffin for a story published Monday, there is no real incentive for health care officials to misstate a cause of death. For one thing, they could lose their careers or face federal fraud charges if caught. Moreover, Chamberlain added, the dwindling CARES Act money that reimburses hospitals for COVID deaths of Medicare patients applies only to people over 65 years old and even then rarely covers all the extra costs of caring for them.

The insult to health care workers is especially severe when we consider that they are literally on the front lines of what Trump himself has called "like a war," exposing themselves daily to the virus, tirelessly working long, stressful hours to treat its victims and watching as patients suffer and sometimes die alone.

So, in these contexts alone, the president's statement is a disturbing perversion of the truth. Beyond that, though, it is more than just offensive.

Promoting misinformation leads people to disregard expert health advice and breeds suspicion of the people most responsible for promoting and ensuring safety. We can see now where that is leading. Coronavirus infection rates are soaring across the country to levels not reached since the early days of the pandemic last spring. As of Monday, the number of new cases in Illinois had increased by 69% so far in October compared to the same period last month. Hospital admissions are on the rise and intensive care populations are starting to swell again. A key reason for the renewed surge, health experts say, is that more and more people are disregarding the fundamental safety precautions - wearing masks, washing hands and watching their distance to stay at least six feet away from others in public.

Unfortunately, these behaviors are also adding to the pressures for greater restrictions on all of us, deepening and lengthening the hardships we endure to fight the virus.

It is natural and appropriate that political leaders will be judged on the merits and effectiveness of their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But making political judgments regarding the response to the disease is not the same as making the disease itself political.

The disease is a health crisis, and distracting attention from that fact is not just bad politics. It is dangerous.

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