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It was a local news report focusing on mental health during the pandemic, but the comments from a hospital's head of trauma quickly caught the attention of conservative media and commentators arguing for the economy to be reopened and stay-at-home orders to be lifted.
"I mean, we've seen a year's worth of suicide attempts in the last four weeks," Dr. Mike deBoisblanc, head of trauma at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, California, told ABC7 on Thursday. "We've never seen numbers like this in such a short period of time."
It seemed to be the kind of data that backed up President Donald Trump's ominous prediction from March: that shutting down the US economy to prevent the spread of the coronavirus would result in "suicide by the thousands."
The doctor's comments quickly spread online during the holiday weekend, with outlets like the New York Post, Fox News, the Washington Examiner, and the Blaze unquestioningly citing the local TV report. It was retweeted by presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway and Fox News host Laura Ingraham, whose followers also shared it. By Tuesday evening, it was cited repeatedly on air on Fox News.
But in an interview with BuzzFeed News, deBoisblanc said his comment about the hospital seeing "a year's worth of suicide attempts in the last four weeks" was inaccurate. He added that at the time he didn't know what the true numbers were. Many of his other comments, which compared the number of deaths from COVID-19 to suicides, "were taken a bit out of context," he said.
Numbers provided by the hospital and the coroner's office also show that the "sharp rise" in suicides initially claimed by deBoisblanc, which alarmed political pundits criticizing quarantine orders, were either overblown or outright false. According to the hospital, it has seen five suicide deaths during the county's shelter-in-place order, compared to two suicide deaths during the same period last year. In general, Contra Costa County sees about 100 suicide deaths per year, and officials said that that's remained stable so far in 2020.
"If you look at it from a contextual standpoint, I think it's accurate," deBoisblanc told BuzzFeed News when asked whether the number of suicide attempts treated at the hospital was actually unprecedented. "If you contextualize in concrete numbers fashion, it's not accurate."
The original news story about a "spike" in suicides did not cite any data nor point to any numbers indicating an alarming trend.
"Unfortunately, we have the data to prove it," deBoisblanc told ABC7, talking about the impact stay-at-home orders have had on mental health. When he later spoke to BuzzFeed News, he admitted that there was no data directly linking the suicide attempts seen at the hospital to the lockdowns.
According to a statement released by the hospital, staff did see a slight increase in self-inflicted injuries between March 1 and May 8, with 13 incidents reported this year (compared to eight during the same time period last year).
The hospital has also seen one more suicide case than deaths from COVID-19, but deBoisblanc told BuzzFeed News the difference didn't point to a trend, nor did it illustrate the toll the pandemic has taken on the community's mental health.
John Muir Medical Center is Contra Costa's trauma center, meaning emergency injuries and trauma, such as many suicide attempts, from all over the county with 1.1 million residents are most likely directed there. COVID-19 cases, on the other hand, have been more evenly distributed across all of the county's hospitals, a move medical officials took at the beginning of the pandemic to prevent overwhelming a single facility.
"We're the county's trauma center, so [our numbers] are skewed," deBoisblanc told BuzzFeed News.
In fact, according to the Contra Costa County Coroner's Office, the number of suicides recorded in the Northern California county has remained relatively stable.
Since March, when quarantine began, the county has seen 26 deaths that were determined to be suicides. Last year, the county saw 30 suicides between March and May.
As of the day the ABC7 report was published, Contra Costa County had seen 36 deaths that were attributed to COVID-19.
DeBoisblanc also said despite the comparison in the original article, it was not his intention to compare suicides to COVID-19 deaths. Instead, he said, it was to highlight the need to address mental health issues during the pandemic.
"We're not in a competition in what disease is worse. That was never the intent," he told BuzzFeed News. "Just because we didn't get hit hard here [with COVID-19 cases] doesn't mean it's not a serious disease. That was not the intention."
But once the story was published, it was quickly picked up by outlets like the Washington Examiner, RT, the Blaze, and Fox News.
Like deBoisblanc during his initial interview, commentators called for the lifting of restrictions on businesses, which health officials have said have been key to reducing the infection rate of the novel coronavirus.
On Tuesday morning, Fox News host Brian Kilmeade cited the ABC7 report, while mistakenly calling it a "study."
"You see this study out in California from this doctor that said more people have died from suicide in California than have actually died from the coronavirus," Kilmeade wrongly said on Fox & Friends.
(Even in his original comments, deBoisblanc did not refer to suicides in the entire state of California, just those at the one hospital.)
Later the same day, Sen. John Barrasso cited the report on Fox News' Bill Hemmer Reports, saying he had brought the issue up with President Trump.
"In California, in the Bay Area, one hospital reports four times as many suicide attempts in the last four weeks than they had all last year," he said erroneously.
That incorrect piece of data continued to flow into the evening portion of the network's shows, repeated by Victor Davis Hanson, a fellow at the conservative think tank Hoover Institution, on The Ingraham Angle with Laura Ingraham.
Ingraham herself shared the story over the weekend, which was retweeted thousands of times.
"We know in Northern California suicides are now more than deaths to the virus," Hanson said incorrectly. "The data is coming in of the medical cost of being on lockdown in addition to the economic cost — and that's not faith-based; that's actual data."
But the point that was repeated on social media and Fox News was not based on actual data. DeBoisblanc told BuzzFeed News he had not received information from the county coroner, nor did he look at the hospital's own numbers until after he had conducted his interview with ABC7.
Instead, he said, part of his comments were coming from his impression on the front lines of the hospital's trauma center, which included a recent "hard week" where he and other doctors and nurses saw a rash of intentional injuries, including suicide attempts.
"When you see a young person take their life, it's a big deal," he said. "The goal of this was to bring awareness to people and say there's resources available."
DeBoisblanc said he still supports lifting the restrictions in Contra Costa County. Although there is no direct evidence linking suicides to the lockdown orders or the pandemic, he believes they are connected.
"I think there is some association," he said. "We know during times of recession and unemployment there's more mental illness, there's more suicide. We follow these trends."
In a statement, the John Muir Health system would not draw such a direct line of causation between the two issues.
"We know that there are a number of reasons for what we are experiencing at Walnut Creek Medical Center and that it is a complex issue that can't be explained by any one factor," the statement read.
The hospital also noted it was continuing to follow the county's shelter-in-place order.
"We realize there are a number of opinions on the topic of Shelter-in-Place, including our medical staff," the statement said. "John Muir Health encourage our physicians and staff to participate constructively in these important discussions."
DeBoisblanc added that he hopes his message — that people who need help for their mental health should seek out resources — is not lost.
"I'm not looking for any fame, and I do want the message out there that this is a tough time for many people, and people are making permanent decisions based on a temporary thing," he said. "These actions of county health departments, they do have impacts on populations, and you need to take that into consideration."
The increase in self-inflicted injuries at the hospital (from 8 last year to 13 this year) is still alarming, he said.
But would it be considered "unprecedented"?
"When you put the numbers down, it's probably not," he said.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org.