Nearly 500,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, but that’s not scaring Catherine Stein.
As the pandemic’s death toll rises and the scientific consensus has crystalized regarding how COVID-19 spreads and how to prevent it, Stein, who teaches infectious disease epidemiology at Case Western Reserve University, remains defiant.
COVID-19, she wrote in January 2021, is “not the scary killer the media and government portray it to be.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, state health departments, and the rest have it all wrong, according to Stein.
On blogs, research posts published by anti-vaccine political groups, and in testimony to state lawmakers, Stein insists that COVID-19 simply isn’t that bad.
She claims that the Ohio Department of Health pads its case counts; the Ohio Hospital Association inflates hospitalization numbers it provides to ODH; health officials fear monger via flawed projection models; the death count only looks bad because of the rate of people dying of COVID-19 who have preexisting medical conditions; and other assertions downplaying COVID-19.
ODH’s COVID-19 dashboard — which provides daily updates on cases, hospitalizations, infections, vaccinations, testing and more — has been “inaccurate, inconsistent, and confusing,” Stein alleged to lawmakers in June.
Stein’s take on COVID-19, among the leading killer of Ohioans since its emergence, is unmistakably at odds with the greater public health community, nearly all of whom oppose various legislative attacks on the health department that Stein lends her expertise to support.
Case Western Reserve University, where Stein has worked since 2004, emphasized she does not speak on behalf of the university. A spokesman declined to provide any professor from the school of medicine or public health to back Stein’s remarks up.
She is currently conducting research funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the National Institute of Health, and the Gates Foundation, according to the university.
She teaches introduction to epidemiology, infectious disease epidemiology, and other courses.
Her role as a COVID-19 skeptic raises key questions: Where does academic freedom end and counter-factualism begin? Who is an expert and who isn’t?
What do you do with health misinformation during a pandemic in a society that cherishes and protects the freedom of speech?
When lawmakers advanced legislation last year to give themselves the ability to strike down health orders, the Ohio State Medical Association, the Ohio Hospital Association, the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, an association representing Ohio’s health commissioners, and more all testified in opposition to the idea.
They argued it would politicize public health and allow lawmakers — many of whom refuse to wear masks and regularly downplay the severity of the pandemic — to strike down key public health tools like mask mandates or bar and restaurant capacity limits.
Conversely, Stein emailed several lawmakers to submit testimony in support of the bill. She argued that masks don’t work; the “emphasis on case counts is inappropriate;” and that “this continued focus on fear and likely inflated numbers is doing nothing but hurting families;” and cites research from Health Freedom Ohio, an anti-vaccine group that has refocused its advocacy on COVID-19 issues.
“I refuse to live in fear of a virus with a >99% survival rate,” she wrote in an email to lawmakers, obtained via public records request.
“This fear narrative must stop.”
The emails are from a personal account, though they list her as an associate professor at Case Western.
In one, she sent a copy of the email to Thomas Renz and Robert Gargasz, two lawyers suing the health department seeking to overturn all public health orders related to the pandemic. In the last month, a federal judge deemed their lawsuit nearly “incomprehensible.” Likewise, YouTube removed footage of Renz’s legislative testimony to a panel of lawmakers for violating its policies on COVID-19 misinformation.
Stein broke from the medical experts and testified in support of different versions of legislation written to allow lawmakers to vote down public health orders. She spoke in support of the bills alongside affiliates of HFO and the Ohio Advocates for Medical Freedom, another anti-vaccine group that has similarly refocused on COVID-19.
Stein testified in support of a “Truth in COVID Statistics” bill this summer, which essentially would force ODH by law to publish certain data points about COVID-19 — most of which the department already publishes.
In a January 2021 blog post published by All In Ohio, an online hotbed of anti-mask and anti-public health activism and organizing, Stein invoked a piece of misinformation that public health officials have combatted since the coronavirus was first detected — that it’s just the flu.
“People get sick, but these statistics very much resemble influenza,” Stein said. “There have been years with even higher influenza hospitalization rates, even exceeding hospital capacity, but those didn’t get media attention or invoke shutdowns of businesses and church closures.”
The comparison between COVID-19 and the flu is baseless. The CDC estimates that between 12,000 and 61,000 Americans die of the flu in a given year. The U.S. is nearing 500,000 COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began.
Similarly, no statewide public health order closed churches in Ohio, though many churches chose to do so internally.
Even into February 2021, Stein’s view of the pandemic has hardly budged, as evidenced by testimony submitted to lawmakers last week.
About 954,000 Ohioans have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Nearly 50,000 have been hospitalized with the disease. Nearly 17,000 have died.
COVID-19 data comes from public and private labs, hospitals, health departments, urgent care centers and governments across the globe. More than 110 million people worldwide have contracted COVID-19, 2.44 million of whom have died, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Historically, epidemiological data on pandemics are usually underestimated, not overestimated. Thus, the CDC tracks “excess deaths” — the rate of mortality above an estimated normal rate of death in a population — to gauge pandemics’ death tolls. Undiagnosed cases, provider issues, data submission issues and more can all warp official counts of cases and deaths.
Stein’s outlook on COVID-19 is on the fringe of the public health community, according to Angy El-Khatib, president of the Ohio Society for Public Health Education.
“You can debate methods of dealing with the issue at hand, but to deny there is an issue at hand is just negligence to me,” she said.
Beyond fighting a wily new virus and its emerging mutations, El-Khatib said, health care workers now also must combat a deluge of COVID-19 misinformation as it proliferates online. She said it’s sad to hear a public health professional is worsening things.
“There’s no denying that the misinformation is out there, and it’s affecting and delaying our response to the pandemic,” she said.
Dr. Cathy Slemp, a former state health officer and bureau of infectious disease director in West Virginia, reviewed Stein’s testimony and writings. She said they seem to reflect her political opinions.
“I’d be concerned about both many of the data interpretations made and the website materials cited,” she said. “Few have been nor would they stand up to scientific peer review.”
The university distanced itself from Stein’s comments.
“The views Associate Professor Stein expressed regarding Senate Bill 311 neither reflect nor align with those of Case Western Reserve,” said William Lubinger, a Case spokesman, in a written statement.
He said all university faculty are free to express their personal perspective as individuals.
However, the university requires students on campus to wear masks, while Stein peddles bunk claims that masks could “adversely affect the health of the mask wearer.”
The university says it’s working to secure vaccines for the community, while Stein moonlights as a researcher for Health Freedom Ohio, a group allied with Robert F. Kennedy’s Children’s Health Defense, one of the most prolific national anti-vaccine advocacy groups.
Stein did not respond to multiple interview requests.
When she reached out in May 2020 to Sen. Kristina Roegner, who sponsored Senate Bill 311, Stein was a familiar name. She testified in support of the “heartbeat bill” Roegner sponsored in 2019, which bans abortions six weeks after gestation.
“I’m not sure you realized this, but my actual career is as an infectious disease epidemiologist,” she wrote.
“I believe the response to COVID-19 has been absolutely wrong at the state level and I will happily testify in favor of your bill.”