State Sen. Scott Jensen, a Chaska Republican and physician, got more attention than he bargained for this month after calling into question federal guidelines for attributing deaths to COVID-19.
Jensen, sometimes mentioned as a possible 2022 gubernatorial candidate, voiced fears that doctors could start over-diagnosing the virus and inflating its death toll in a series of interviews with television personalities from North Dakota to Fox News in New York.
His words quickly went viral around the globe and found new life fueling conspiracy theories and disinformation about the coronavirus across fringe, far-right websites.
"I'm deeply disappointed," Jensen said in an interview this week. "I think that things are being taken out of context. … But isn't that the world we live in? I mean, I think people will clip and cut and paste."
One of Jensen's earliest interviews on the subject, with Fargo TV host Chris Berg, gained significant traction among followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which claims that a worldwide network of satanic pedophiles controls a "deep state" pulling the levers of government. A Facebook page affiliated with the QAnon movement shared a link to Jensen's interview with its more than 144,000 followers with the comment: "What is the primary benefit to keep public in mass-hysteria re: COVID-19? Think voting. Are you awake yet?"
InfoWars, a conspiracy news site that recently claimed that the coronavirus is a man-made bioweapon meant to stoke panic, also linked to Jensen's interview and ended a post with Jensen's quote: "Well, fear is a great way to control people, and I worry about that."
Jensen said he began speaking out after taking a closer look at new federal guidance added this month for physicians and medical examiners on when to declare COVID-19 as a cause of death. In one TV interview, Jensen was asked why he thought the government would want to skew the COVID-19 death toll upward.
"I worry that sometimes we're just so interested in jazzing up the fear factor," he replied.
Jensen has also suggested that each state's share of COVID-19 deaths could "at some point in time powerfully impact the allocation of federal funds."
Though not addressing Jensen specifically, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and a leader of the national COVID-19 response, rejected those arguments.
"I think it falls under the category of something that is very unfortunate — these conspiracy theories that we hear about," Fauci told NBC News.
State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm meanwhile described the latest federal guidance as a measure to better define the scope of the pandemic.
A Star Tribune review of 63 COVID-19-related death records in Minnesota suggests that doctors in the state are taking a conservative approach to attributing deaths to the virus when test results weren't available. Of the death records, 10 say "possible" or "suspected" or "awaiting test results." The state's Health Department confirmed that the 10 records were not added to the official death count. If test results come in after the death and confirm that it was due to COVID-19, physicians can amend the death certificate and the case would then be added to the official tally.
Andy Slavitt, a Minnesota resident and former acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said that without evidence, accusations of falsifying data for financial gain "has the appearance of trying to fit in a conclusion you want to reach." He pointed out that the U.S. is instead still hamstrung by a "significant amount of underreporting and undertesting" of the virus.
"This isn't even something that is supposed to be an argument," he said. "Let's just prevent people from getting sick and dying and give the public the best evidence and guidance to do that instead of speculating in a way that could be unhealthy for people."
In a coordinated effort akin to information warfare during the 2016 presidential campaign, thousands of Russian-linked social media accounts have been deployed to spread fear about COVID-19. Experts say Russian, Iranian and Chinese actors have been waging disinformation campaigns to distract from their own challenges while sowing doubt about the U.S. response to the pandemic.
Russia Today, a Kremlin-powered global television network, also used Jensen's statements to Fox News host Laura Ingraham to punctuate a story questioning New York's COVID-19 death count.
"We are going to undermine the public trust," Jensen said in the interview, warning that "trust in politicians is already wearing thin."
A Pew Research Center Poll conducted during the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. found that about half of Americans said they encountered at least some "completely made-up news" about the virus. The report's authors attributed some of the skepticism toward information related to the rapidly evolving public health crisis to "a competitive, and often conflicting, media environment." Leadership at the World Health Organization in February described fighting "an infodemic" alongside the pandemic.
In an interview this week, Jensen said that he still had confidence in Malcolm and the governor. But his comments also come amid a deepening political divide across the country over governors' decisions to install stay-at-home orders that have shuttered many businesses in a bid to mitigate the virus' spread.
On Thursday, several state DFL lawmakers who are also physicians criticized Jensen's statements and accused him of seeking to exploit the crisis for political gain.
"He's basically saying that doctors are lying about death," said state Rep. Alice Mann, a Democrat from Lakeville who is also an emergency room physician.
Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and expert on Russian disinformation at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said moments of fear and uncertainty can lead people to consume information that they would not otherwise consider. It is under these circumstances, Watts said, that disinformation peddlers can use a pandemic as a chance for news consumers to let their guards down and accept them as viable sources of information.
Jensen's remarks can serve "as the kindling for disinformation," Watts said. He said Jensen's status as an elected official and doctor amplified that dynamic.
"He can elevate and amplify those narratives in a way that you or I cannot," Watt said.
Jensen has courted controversy on other matters of public health. He opposes state-mandated vaccinations for children, framing it as an issue of parents' rights, and has defended President Donald Trump for talking about hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug that has yet to be medically approved as a coronavirus treatment.
Jensen stands by his concerns about the federal guidelines and questions raised about how death counts could affect federal funding — saying that "to not acknowledge that is putting our heads in the sand."
At the same time, Jensen pleaded for Minnesotans to take in his full message. "I don't want my videos or my comments weaponized, but I don't know in this day and age what you can do to stop that."
Staff writer Glenn Howatt contributed to this report.