‘This is misinformation’: Lethbridge MP receives backlash over post on COVID deaths

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Lethbridge MP Rachael Harder is receiving some backlash after sharing a controversial post over the weekend that claimed only 10 “otherwise healthy” people had died from COVID-19 in the province. As Emily Olsen reports, an Alberta doctor says framing the death toll in that way is disrespectful and dangerous – Nov 24, 2020

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to add a comment from Sun newspapers national columnist Anthony Furey.

At first glance, it would be difficult to see that Alberta woman Julie Rohr is living with stage four cancer, but as COVID-19 continues to rise in Alberta, she says she is very aware of her added risk. 

“Today is exactly five years since I got my diagnosis and you know they told me, in the beginning, it was 12-18 months,” Rohr said. “It is in my lungs at this moment, so to catch COVID would be a real threat to my life.”

Read more: Hinshaw warns young Albertans that long-term effects of COVID-19 remain unknown

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Rohr said she was disheartened by a Nov. 20 Facebook post from Lethbridge MP Rachael Harder, which suggests COVID-19 deaths of those with underlying conditions should not be included in the current Alberta death toll.

“It’s like people are writing us off,” she said. “You walk around in your daily life and you don’t know how many people around you have that kind of challenge. So certainly when an elected official says something like that, it carries more weight than if it was just a bunch of people gathered on a street corner with signs or something.”

Harder’s post quotes an online news story, saying “Ten. That’s the number of otherwise healthy people who have died from COVID-19 in Alberta since the beginning of the pandemic. This may come as a surprise to people both in Alberta and around the country who are following the second wave of COVID-19 as it sends daily case counts rising in many Canadian provinces. One gets the sense that things are much worse.”

Read more: Alberta experts say COVID-19 has provided ‘extra opportunities for bullying’

Urgent care doctor Raj Bhardwaj said Tuesday that promoting content like this as an elected official is unacceptable.  

“This is really frustrating that somebody who holds public office would try to spread misinformation like that,” Bhardwaj said.

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“Let me be clear: it is misinformation. If somebody dies of COVID, they die of COVID. They don’t die because they also happen to be a smoker or they also happen to have high blood pressure or diabetes.”

Bhardwaj said it’s both disrespectful and dangerous to frame the death toll in this way, especially because far more than half of Albertans are living with these underlying conditions.

“To say that somebody’s life is valued less because they happen to have been diagnosed with high blood pressure or diabetes or anything else like that is just absolutely inhumane,” Bhardwaj said.

Rohr adds it’s crucial that elected officials both provincially and federally recognize the vulnerability of all constituents as valid.

Read more: Makeshift graveyard outside Alberta health minister’s office criticizes COVID-19 response

“Comments like this are disheartening and make us feel like we don’t matter,” Rohr said. “Even people who have preexisting conditions can live beautiful, long lives if they were not cut short by COVID. So we should all be banding together to figure out the best way to get through this as a society.”

Anthony Furey, Sun newspapers national columnist and author of the article in question, told Global News: “My article highlighted Alberta Health Services data about how over 75 per cent of Albertans who have died of COVID-19 did so while facing three or more underlying conditions and only about 2.5 per cent of Albertans – 10 of them at the time – died without any such comorbidities. Those are the facts, they’re certainly not misinformation.”

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Harder’s post has garnered hundreds of comments on her Facebook page, but when asked by Global News to clarify her position, she declined to comment.