Monday, July 22, 2024

A woman mourns Covid deaths Sept. 19, 2021, at an art exhibition on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., with every white flag representing a Covid death at the time. (Photo: Elvert Barnes via Flickr)

A conspiracy theory that medical authorities are falsely inflating the Covid-19 death toll has persisted since early in the pandemic, stoked by people and organizations that oppose Covid vaccinations and precautions or deny that the virus exists. Cambridge isn’t immune to the misinformation, often spread by social media.

A Twitter user identified as Kallah Truth Warrior Cybernaut asserted by tweet Sept. 15: “Cambridge City Hospital tried to bribe my stepson when my husband died last year, telling him they’d pay for the funeral, up to $9,000 if he’d give permission for them to change his cause of death from ’pneumonia and cancer in 1 lung’ to ’COVID.’ (His PCR test was negative.)”

Relatives have no legal say over what’s listed as the cause of death, making it hard to believe anyone would offer a bribe to a family member for “permission” to change a death certificate.

David Cecere, spokesperson for the Cambridge Health Alliance, said “unsubstantiated allegations such as this are extremely damaging.”

“They undermine the public’s faith in the medical community and distract from a real and prolonged public health crisis,” Cecere said.

Still, the five people who responded to the tweet did not question the claim, and the post garnered nine retweets and two quote tweets.

A tweet by Kallah Truth Warrior Cybernaut, marked to indicate it includes misinformation.

“ZOMG, if this was done this is a scandal,” wrote a user called Jurassic Carl in a tweet that seemed to inspire Kallah to respond; this tweet linked to a conservative and conspiracy-themed media site with another example of the tale. Another claimed with no evidence that people weren’t “questioning their loved ones dying” because “they’re being paid hush money thru hospitals silent donor programs,” and added that “it happened to my neighbor after her daughter suffered a heart issue after shot #2.” A third concluded “Fraud and bribery” and invited Cambridge Day to do “some real journalism.”

Kallah Truth Warrior Cybernaut was contacted at her apartment building in Cambridge and by email. She asked not to be identified by name because she said she feared reactions to her beliefs; “Cambridge is a place where it’s hard to be a person who doesn’t agree with the ’Great Reset’ narrative and the Covid narrative etc.,” she wrote. (The “great reset” is a vague set of conspiracy theories about forces manipulating the world to their own ends, experts say, though its springboard was a public proposal from the World Economic Forum on how economies could recover from the effects of the Covid pandemic.)

She declined to identify the stepson mentioned in her tweet. Confronted with the fact that family members do not have to give permission for listing cause of death on a death certificate, she said she believes her stepson. “He is very honest,” she said.

She said her stepson told the story while family members and others rode back from her partner’s wake and someone in the car reacted with horror, so she decided to post the tweet. “This is happening a lot,” she said, referring to alleged bribes offered to family members for their permission to have death certificates list Covid as the cause. She provided no evidence.

One part of the tweet – a $9,000 reimbursement for funeral expenses – bears some resemblance to reality, but the pandemic aid goes directly to survivors from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It does not come from hospitals, and hospitals do not benefit from it.

Allegations that death certificates were manipulated to increase the death toll from the virus were fueled by changes in the spring of 2020 to the way Covid deaths were reported. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Vital Statistics System said Covid-19 should be listed as a cause if it was assumed to contribute to a death, even if the person had not been tested. Testing was difficult to get at that time.

Conspiracy theorists said the move was a political attack on President Donald Trump by exaggerating the seriousness of a pandemic he had downplayed, and an attempt to alarm the public. Later, in August 2020, Twitter removed a post that seized on a CDC report that in 6 percent of deaths Covid was the only cause listed; the post, which was retweeted by Trump, claimed that the agency’s report showed that the other deaths were not caused by the virus. That was not true: The CDC statistics showed merely that there were conditions as well as Covid that contributed to deaths.

Family members have pressured medical examiners to add and to remove Covid-19 as a cause of death, according to a December article by Medpage Today, a medical news service.

The article quoted the Connecticut medical examiner as saying some relatives wanted their loved one’s death ascribed to Covid so they could get the funeral reimbursement from FEMA. Others wanted Covid removed because they didn’t believe the virus existed, according to an academic pathologist quoted by the magazine.

The article didn’t mention any instance where a hospital had asked the family to consent to changing a death certificate to include Covid, as the tweet by Kallah Truth Warrior Cybernaut claimed.

In March, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health tightened the definition of a Covid death by requiring that the victim had a positive test within 30 days of death instead of 60 days. The change reduced the state’s death toll from the virus by 3,770 deaths, but in Cambridge, the count rose by 19 deaths. The city had been using an even more demanding definition of a Covid death before the state change, the Cambridge Public Health Department said.