Fact Check: Cooper's Claim About Ventilators And COVID-19 Deaths 'Mostly False'

Sep 10, 2020

Gov. Roy Cooper says he wants to make sure hospitals in North Carolina don't get overwhelmed with patients. That's part of the state's strategy to keep the number of deaths from COVID-19 low. At a press conference last month, he went on to make this statement, which is catching some heat from Republicans:

"Some of these other states, some of their deaths can be attributable to the fact that they were having a hard time getting an ICU bed or a ventilator to a patient. We do not want that to happen in North Carolina."

So, is it true that some people have died because they couldn't get a ventilator or a bed in the intensive care unit? WRAL's Paul Specht joins us to assess Cooper's claim.

Lisa Worf: Good morning, Paul.

Paul Specht: Good morning.

Worf: Why has this issue become so political?

Specht: For one, we're in an election year, so everything's political. But second, because at the beginning of the pandemic, when hospitals were becoming overwhelmed and were going public and saying, "Hey, we need these resources," a lot of people looked to the president and said, "Hey, help us, get us ventilators, help us with access to resources." And a lot of those people crying for help were governors. They were saying, "What can you do from the national stockpiles?" And so a lot of the attention turned to the president and what he was able to do, and that's why these comments, made in passing by North Carolina's governor, that's why they were brought up by the Republican Party of North Carolina.

Worf: So, we heard a lot of concerns about ventilators and ICU bed shortages at the beginning of the pandemic. Six months in now, did that end up happening?

Specht: It does not appear so. We reached out to the American Hospital Association, as well as other medical experts who are tracking the allocation of coronavirus resources, such as ventilators, and they cannot point to specific cases where someone died specifically because they were waiting on an ICU bed or because they could not access a ventilator.

Worf: I mean, would there necessarily be records of COVID deaths attributed to someone not being able to get a ventilator or ICU bed?

Specht: That's a good question, and we asked one expert out of Colorado that same question, and he said hospitals would be reluctant to point specifically to these scenarios anyway. So it's possible there are things like this happening where hospitals have to make tough decisions about who gets a ventilator and who doesn't and who gets an ICU bed and who doesn't, but it would be very rare for a hospital to put on paper somewhere that a coronavirus patient died while waiting for a bed or while waiting for a ventilator.

Worf: Now, what was Cooper's response when you pointed out that there are no at least documented cases of someone dying because they couldn't get a ventilator or ICU bed?

Specht: The Cooper administration sent us a list of stories and studies that was thorough but did not, again, point to specific cases. If you search, you'll see lots of stories about these overwhelmed hospitals, specifically in New York and in Houston and some in Florida, where doctors speak to the media and say, "Hey, we are overwhelmed here," and at the same time, the mortality rate is rising. Well, that might all be true. We did not find many cases — very, very few cases — where someone died while waiting for a ventilator or because they were, say, rejected from a hospital that was at capacity.

Worf: So, I'm confused. Earlier, you said there were no documented deaths because of these shortages, but you just said that you found "very, very few cases."

Specht: I meant to say news reports. In almost no case did we find a news article or official documentation from these various states or the American Hospital Association where someone could point to a case, and that's what we really needed to see here for this to be a true statement. We needed an example of a Jane Doe/John Smith/whoever even coming forward to the public to say, "My family member was otherwise healthy and needed help and didn't get it."  

Worf: Even if you have experts saying the American Hospital Association and hospitals wouldn't document these things?  

Specht: Right. And two things to mention here. One, PolitiFact looked into this issue in late April and reached out to all 50 states and heard from more than 30 states and state officials, and none of them said that they were aware of any cases. When we circled back to some of those same experts, we asked, "OK, has anything changed? Have you heard of these surges really leading to deaths because of a lack of these resources?" And they said no. They could not point to any specific documentation.

Worf: So, how did you rate Cooper's claim?

Specht: We rated it mostly false because his statement contains an element of truth. It is true that you don't want hospitals to be overwhelmed, because studies show that death rates go up when hospitals are overwhelmed. They cannot provide the same standard of care. And the administration pointed that out, and that is true, but in this particular case, his comment in that press conference could lead people to believe that people are dying specifically because of a lack of ventilators or specifically because of a lack of ICU beds, and that does not appear to be the case.

These fact checks are a collaboration between WRAL and PolitiFact. You can hear them Wednesdays on WFAE's Morning Edition.