Lobbyist urges lawmakers to question accuracy of COVID-19 deaths, infections in Kansas

Dave Trabert, CEO of the Kansas Policy Institute, testifies Monday before a panel on economic recovery about the high survival rate of COVID-19 and the pandemic's economic damage. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A frequent skeptic of COVID-19’s impact in Kansas pressed a mostly maskless GOP-led panel Monday to verify reported death totals and refuse heavy restrictions that would cripple a floundering economy.

As lobbyist Dave Trabert presented data undermining the increasing severity of the pandemic, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported another surge in infections and 10 more deaths.

So far, COVID-19 has killed 1,266 Kansans and infected 122,741.

Hospitals for several weeks now have set new records of COVID-19 admissions on a near-daily basis, and warn that staff shortages may prevent them from caring for any more patients. Local officials have responded by embracing mask mandates, ramping up restrictions on the number of people who can gather in public, limiting operations of bars and restaurants, and moving public school instruction online.

Thirty-two counties now have accepted Gov. Laura Kelly’s proposed mask mandate from early July or adopted their own, according to the state’s new online tracking dashboard. Cities in 10 other counties also have imposed a mandate.

Trabert, who lobbies for the Kansas Policy Institute’s “free market solutions,” told the Special Committee on Economic Recovery that lawmakers should review the death certificates that KDHE relies upon to report COVID-19 deaths in Kansas.

“I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong in the numbers, but we’re having to take the department of health’s word for all this,” Trabert said. “And as you may be aware of, we’ve caught them fudging data a few times on the number of deaths, cases and how they’re growing and so forth.”

KDHE hasn’t been caught “fudging data,” but Trabert and his colleagues have attacked the data presented by health officials, scientists and academics throughout the pandemic. He has objected to the merits of mask mandates and opposed the statewide lockdown in April.

Trained physicians, coroners and medical examiners are responsible for determining whether COVID-19 is the underlying cause of death. KDHE then reviews death certificates as part of its reporting process.

COVID-19 deaths stand out from other causes because there are so many of them. By comparison, the flu killed 389 people in Kansas in the past three years combined.

Rep. Rui Xu, D-Westwood, responding on Twitter to Trabert’s call for a review of death certificates: “The dumb thing about this is that even if you’re skeptical about all the deaths being attributed to COVID-19, you have to have an alternate explanation for the (difference) in total deaths over previous years.”

Trabert also questioned the validity of positive tests in Kansas and provided a chart showing the “mortality rate” is declining. In reality, deaths have become more frequent since July.

Rep. Richard Proehl, of Parsons, was the only Republican to wear a mask during Monday’s meeting of the Special Committee on Economic Recovery. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Eight of the nine Republicans in attendance declined to wear a mask during the committee hearing, including Sen. Julia Lynn, the committee’s chairwoman from Olathe. The three Democrats — Rep. Tom Burroughs, of Kansas City, Rep. Stephanie Clayton, of Overland Park, and Rep. Jim Gartner, of Topeka — and Republican Rep. Richard Proehl, of Parsons, all wore masks.

Trabert told lawmakers that labs in Kansas are too sensitive in their testing for COVID-19, picking up traces of genetic material after the virus has been defeated.

“We don’t know how many, but we probably are getting an unknown number of positive results that really aren’t contagious,” Trabert said. “And yet those numbers are partly responsible for keeping kids out of school, for having mandates or having, honestly, fear put out there perhaps unnecessarily.”

Testing procedures in Kansas are authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Trabert calculated a 1.1% “mortality rate” as the number of infected Kansans who now die from the disease. That rate has improved as the state expanded testing capacity, but the rate of deaths for the Kansas population continues to worsen. Trabert’s argument doesn’t consider the vast health problems for survivors or how many of the state’s 2.9 million people would die if community transmission remains uncontrolled.

“Our Kansas cases and deaths are climbing to the highest rates we have seen to date in the pandemic, and our hospitals are filling up,” said Ashely Jones-Wisner, senior director of public affairs for KDHE. “To state the virus is getting better is a complete mischaracterization, and a dangerous one at this critical juncture.”

Projections by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington show daily deaths in the United States rising from 1,157 per day now to 2,000 per day by the end of the year. The IHME model shows daily deaths would decline slightly under a universal mask mandate, or surge to more than 3,100 per day if mandates were eased.

The governor has asked for GOP support in convincing local leaders to adopt mask mandates but repeatedly has said she won’t propose another statewide lockdown.

Seven states without a lockdown — Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming — reported job losses since March 1 in a range from 3.7% to 8.9%, according to numbers presented by Trabert. He proposed that Kansas, which falls in the middle of that range with a job loss of 5.2%, would have fared better without Kelly’s statewide lockdown in April.

The same seven states posted year-to-year second-quarter private-sector losses in GDP ranging from 4.4% to 20.7%, Trabert said, while Kansas has lost 9% of its GDP.

Trabert’s numbers lacked context about the variations between state economies. Kansas has suffered severe losses in aerospace manufacturing, for instance.

Lauren Fitzgerald, the governor’s spokeswoman, said the administration is building upon progress that includes new capital investments and a lower unemployment rate.

“But we can’t have a healthy economy without healthy Kansans,” Fitzgerald said. “Slowing the spread of COVID-19 is directly tied to our state’s recovery.”