AG questions the data, analysis, and response in 2020 – 2021

On the effective four-year anniversary of the Covid-19 economic lockdown ordered by Governor Eric Holcomb (R), Attorney General Todd Rokita (R) releases a report he says that he “commissioned” so as “to expose the real numbers associated with the coronavirus lockdowns.”

The Rokita revisitation comes in the midst of a heated gubernatorial campaign in which core Republican primary voters are still steamed about the lockdown (it was the leading topic for questions at the February CD 06 straw poll), and on the heels of a passage of popular legislation to attenuate gubernatorial power in the event of a prolonged state emergency.

“The truth is our government produced and relied on severely flawed data, including inflated death counts and unsound positivity rates, to shape the state’s failed response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” General Rokita said in releasing his 29-page Analysis of COVID-19. , and referring to “the excessively restrictive measures imposed on people everywhere to fight the dangerous virus from China.” “This faulty data led to months of lockdowns, mask mandates, and devastated our economy. Hoosiers shouldn’t have to choose between their lives and their livelihoods.”

AG Rokita claims that the “lockdowns on purportedly free citizens [proved] even more destructive than the havoc wreaked by the public health crisis itself. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the architect of much of the federal government’s initial COVID-19 response, admitted late last year that many directives – such as 6-foot social distancing – ‘sort of just appeared’ without any serious science backing them up. So seems to be the case with many mandates and orders imposed on Hoosiers,” the AG – who assumed office in January 2021, some six months after the lockdown had ended, adds.

And while he contends that Governor Eric Holcomb (R) hasn’t learned from his “draconian” Covid mistakes even four years removed from the start, “most Hoosiers believe – as I do – that their state government strayed off course and must get back on track.”

The report observes that “compared to other states, Indiana got a lot wrong. In

preventing COVID-19 deaths and job losses, Indiana ranks 31st and 29th, respectively. State leaders and public health officials must set the record straight about what went right and wrong during COVID-19. They must refute the notion that pandemics require a choice between saving lives and the economy and acknowledge that the two are interdependent.”

Governor Holcomb “panned the report and reaffirmed his support for the state’s pandemic efforts,” Whitney Downard and Casey Smith write for the Indiana Capital Chronicle. “I have very little thoughts about his report. I stand by our accurate Department of Health reported numbers. They are accurate and I can’t speak to where he found his information. (He) certainly didn’t work with the Department of Health or with our office,” Gov. Holcomb said.

Smith adds that the Rokita report “didn’t appear to include independent input from data scientists, medical professionals or name any contributing individuals – or their relevant credentials – other than Rokita.”

There is also no attribution of authorship – seemingly unusual for a document such as this. We’re told that several OAG staff attorneys and policy staff members actually prepared the report.

No credentialed scientists or physicians were involved in preparing the report, which OAG positions as a review of existing research from multiple well-known researchers and institutions, with citations throughout. The report does not include research conducted independently by OAG and relies on the conclusions found by the researchers whose work informs it. Staff attorneys and individuals with an expertise in data analysis provided the analysis comparing COVID-19 death counts, as supplied by IDOH on the MPH website, and COVID-19 death certificates, as supplied by the IDOH Division of Vital Records.

The report itself was not peer-reviewed, but OAG explains that “much of the data and literature used in the report came from IDOH, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine – sponsored by the National Science Foundation, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cato Institute, Washington State University, Indiana University School of Public Health, Center(s) for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics–Vital Statistics Reporting Guidance, working papers written by academia, among others. The paper was also reviewed by Jay Battacharya, professor of medicine, economics, and health research policy at Stanford University.”

We are told that “IDOH assisted by providing the data used to compare the COVID-19 death counts to COVID-19 death certificates.”

When did work on the report itself specifically begin? The concept was initiated in late 2021, and work continued until its release. OAG insists that there were no costs to the State for the report.

Back to the report itself.

“OAG’s analysis focuses on two statistics widely reported and relied on by public health officials during the pandemic: the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 and the positivity rate (the total number of positive COVID-19 tests divided by the total number of COVID-19 tests administered). As evidenced in the report, inflated death counts and unsound positivity rates informed public policy decisions, like detrimental lockdowns, which harmed Hoosiers’ mental and physical well-being and our children’s education,” the report contends.

The OAG “analysis found numerous flaws with the State’s data and mitigation policies,” including:

  • Vastly inflated death count: After comparing IDOH’s “Death Count” with the number of death certificates which list “COVID-19” as cause of death, our office found double-digit discrepancies – particularly in Indiana’s largest counties. IDOH’s official MPH website overreported COVID-19 deaths by 10.9 percent in 2020, 7 percent in 2021 and 12.5 percent in 2022. IDOH counts deaths from automobile accidents, drownings, overdoses and other non-COVID-19 causes as COVID-19 deaths.
  • Unsound positivity rates: MPH’s reported positivity rates soared over 30 percent during several months of 2020, but our analysis (pulled from several studies, including one done by the University of Washington) found that Indiana’s positivity rate was consistently under 5 percent during every month of 2020. Thus, lockdowns and mandates used by state officials were based on unsound positivity rates(.)
  • Detrimental lockdowns: Lockdowns in Indiana fit into the same category as nationwide measures that Johns Hopkins University found reduced COVID-19 mortality by only 0.2% on average – while causing “enormous economic and social harms.”
  • Harms to Hoosiers’ mental and physical well-being: COVID-19 policies restricted access to standard medical services. In 2020 alone, there was a nationwide deficit of 9.4 million breast, colorectal, and prostate cancer screenings. In Indiana specifically, Hoosiers’ mental health continues to suffer since the pandemic, with Indiana reporting the third-highest level of severe depression in the United States over the last three years.
  • Devastating impact on student learning: Prolonged school closures resulted in years of learning loss from which many students have yet to recover.

Findings from this analysis lead OAG to strongly advise that policymakers establish a process that requires pandemic-related decisions to be based solely on high-quality research and sound data rather than anecdotal findings and faulty information – and to keep Indiana’s economy and educational institutions

fully open for business during future public health challenges.

Specifically with respect to unsound positivity rates, the report contends that “IDOH calculated each county’s positivity rate by dividing the total number of positive tests by the total number of tests provided. Therefore, if a person tested five days in a row and each test was positive, that person contributed five positive cases to the positivity rate data.”

The report also notes that “Those tested for COVID-19 had a higher probability of testing positive – individuals who were symptomatic and referred for testing by a physician and those required to be tested by their employer because they may be at a higher risk of exposure.”

Finally, the OAG findings add, “IDOH funded the country’s first statewide prevalence survey testing 3,658 randomly selected individuals and determined Indiana’s positivity rate was roughly ten times lower than the rate calculated and reported by the state. IDOH discontinued the study after only three rounds of testing and continued to use biased positivity rate data as a metric to impose county-level COVID-19 restrictions.”

The Rokita report also suggests that “IDOH’s and CDC’s definitions of a COVID-19 death appear to have been at odds,” and raises questions about the death certificates themselves. “OAG recommends public health officials audit the medical records underlying a death certificate listing COVID-19 to determine if the deaths were correctly attributed to COVID-19. Without such an audit, the risk of dying from COVID-19 is unknown. Such information would be valuable to Hoosiers as they calculate the costs and benefits of vaccinating themselves and their children against COVID-19.”

The Rokita report bottom line: “Findings from this analysis strongly indicate that policymakers should establish a process that requires pandemic-related decisions to be based solely on high-quality research and sound data rather than anecdotal findings and faulty information. Further, they should keep Indiana’s economy and educational institutions fully open for business during future public health challenges.”