Sinclair Broadcast Group aired an episode of Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson the weekend of February 7 during which host Sharyl Attkisson allowed her guest to falsely claim that lockdowns have no effect on the spread of COVID-19. In the same interview, the anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist host and her guest misleadingly downplayed the lethality of the disease, and Attkisson concluded the episode by promoting a deadly strategy urging hundreds of millions of Americans to get infected with the coronavirus. According to the show’s website, it broadcasts to “43 million households in 79 markets on 162 Sinclair Broadcast Group stations.”
Attkisson and her guest’s false claims follow Sinclair’s other programs promoting similar COVID-19 misinformation.
In October, then-Sinclair host Eric Bolling claimed in a monologue that “closing down cities and economies and wearing your tube socks around your face hasn't slowed the virus down.” After Media Matters’ reporting, Bolling’s monologue was edited to remove that line before it was aired -- and after months of spreading other COVID-19 misinformation, his Sinclair program was canceled. Bolling’s program also downplayed how deadly the pandemic is and seemingly advocated for the strategy to expose hundreds of millions of Americans to the coronavirus to achieve herd immunity. Sinclair’s Jan Jeffcoat, anchor of the conservative company’s morning news program The National Desk, also repeatedly spread misinformation about the effectiveness of lockdowns.
Attkisson allowed her guest to claim lockdowns are ineffective, despite public health and infectious disease experts on record talking about their effectiveness
On the February 7 episode of Full Measure, Stanford University medical professor Jay Bhattacharya was similarly dismissive of the effectiveness of lockdowns, citing a study he co-wrote which compared lockdowns between different countries -- even though it reportedly noted that “cross-country comparisons are difficult.” Bhattacharya said, “What happened is there's no difference in the rate of spread in the early days of the epidemic” between countries with mandatory lockdowns and two that did not institute such lockdowns.
But actual experts in the field of public health and infectious disease -- unlike the former research fellow at a right-wing think tank -- say that lockdowns do work to slow the spread of COVID-19. Ana Bento, an assistant professor at the School of Public Health at Indiana University Bloomington, told NPR that lockdowns do work as a last resort measure to break the chain of transmission. Bhramar Mukherjee, professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, said to NPR that “the lockdown as a strategy, if implemented absolutely correctly, in an ideal utopian world, would be very effective” -- but he also suggested the U.S. was far from an ideal environment for strict lockdowns, as NPR noted. Two other experts also confirmed to Reuters that “lockdowns do reduce transmission” of the coronavirus:
Reuters contacted two experts, Dr. Elizabeth Stuart, Associate Dean for Education at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Dr. Stuart Ray, infectious disease expert with the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Both confirmed that lockdowns do reduce transmission of the SARS-Cov-2 and highlighted that a more “targeted” or “proportional” approach of restrictions can mitigate the risk of infection, while balancing other concerns about the economy and mental health.
PolitiFact has also convincingly debunked the claim that lockdowns don’t work. Lee Riley, the chair of infectious disease and vaccinology at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health, told PolitiFact: “The problem is when these restrictions are eased or lifted, that’s when we see the resurgence. This is what people are looking at and saying the restrictions don’t work. And that’s absolutely incorrect. Restrictions do work.” PolitiFact also cited Erin Mordecai, an assistant professor in biology at Stanford University focused on the ecology of infectious disease, who said: “The science shows pretty clearly that non-pharmaceutical interventions---business closures, social distancing, mask-wearing---including so-called ‘government lockdowns’ do work to slow the spread of COVID-19.”
Another Politi-Fact fact check, this time of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott falsely claiming that shutdowns are “ineffective,” quoted Dr. Diana Cervantes, an epidemiologist at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. Cervantes said: “If you say we’re just going to look at reducing the number of transmissions and cases, do lockdowns work? Yes they do. We clearly saw that during the spring.”
Attkisson failed to offer the perspective of these issue experts during the segment, instead allowing Bhattacharya to dismiss studies -- briefly mentioned by Attkisson -- showing that these lockdowns saved millions of lives.
Attkisson and Bhattacharya misleadingly downplayed the lethality of COVID-19
Attkisson and Bhattacharya then moved on to downplaying the lethality of COVID-19, with the host saying that “public health experts were assuming that coronavirus, COVID-19, was far more lethal than it turned out to be.” The example she cited was Dr. Anthony Fauci testifying to Congress “that COVID was 10 times deadlier than the flu.” Bhattacharya responded, “I think it was a very misleading statement.”
But a PolitiFact fact check at the time checked with Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security, who said that “while it is early in the outbreak, there is enough data to say that 1% is likely a fairly reasonable approximation with some scientific basis in data.” The article explained that the average annual flu death rate is about 0.1%.
Bhattacharya then claimed “the death rate from COVID is something like 0.2 to 0.3%,” even though the most recent data from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center shows that the observed case-fatality rate in the U.S. is 1.7%, far higher than he claims.
Another claim Bhattacharya made to downplay the disease’s lethality -- “the survival rate is something like 95% if you’re over the age of 70” and “99.95%” if you’re younger -- seems to echo numbers from a viral Facebook post claiming that the survival rates listed in the post come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But according to PolitiFact, they do not, and not even the CDC can calculate survival rates at this point in the pandemic.
The U.S. COVID-19 death toll, which as of publication stands at more than 466,000 Americans, wasn’t mentioned once. And there are good reasons to believe that the official death toll is severely undercounting the number of Americans killed by the pandemic.
Attkisson promoted a COVID-19 strategy that could kill millions of Americans
Following the interview, Attkisson concluded the segment by saying: “Bhattacharya helped write a strategy called the Barrington Declaration, which has since been endorsed by thousands of scientists and medical professionals. They call lockdowns a serious health threat and endorse a focused strategy: Better protection for the vulnerable while people at low risk get immunity through natural infection.”
Such a strategy is outrageously dangerous in that it risks killing millions of people and isn’t backed by science, given that little is known about whether people who have survived the virus are fully protected from further infection, and the United States’ experience from this past summer showed that young people who disregarded social distancing spread the virus among more vulnerable populations. (The document Attkisson promoted also contained clearly fake signatories like “Dr. Johnny Bananas” and an employee of the “university of your mum” before the names were removed from the site.)
The New York Times reported that actual pandemic experts considered the proposal deadly, unethical, and “total nonsense”:
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, has dismissed the declaration as unscientific, dangerous and “total nonsense.” Others have called it unethical, particularly for multigenerational families and communities of color.
Alarmed and angry, 80 experts on Wednesday published a manifesto of their own, the John Snow Memorandum (named after a legendary epidemiologist), saying that the declaration’s approach would endanger Americans who have underlying conditions that put them at high risk from severe Covid-19 — at least one-third of U.S. citizens, by most estimates — and result in perhaps a half-million deaths.
“I think it’s wrong, I think it’s unsafe, I think it invites people to act in ways that have the potential to do an enormous amount of harm,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, an infectious disease expert at Harvard University and one of the signatories to the Snow memo. “You don’t roll out disease — you roll out vaccination.”
The declaration’s strategy is both unethical and fails to account for human behavior, said Ruth Faden, a bioethicist at Johns Hopkins University.
Bhattacharya seems as much an activist as a scholar on this issue -- BuzzFeed News has documented numerous instances of the professor advocating for governments to end lockdowns and claiming the disease isn’t so deadly. At one point, Bhattacharya even likened COVID-19 to the flu.
And Attkisson’s promotion of dangerous misinformation about the pandemic from the safety of her socially distanced, non-studio perch rings hollow as thousands of Americans continue to die on a daily basis.