Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita prepares to take questions during the Never Forget 2020 Rally on Saturday in Mishawaka. (Photo/Marilyn Odendahl)

By Marilyn Odendahl

The Indiana Citizen

March 25, 2024

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita on Saturday unveiled a 29-page report compiled by his office that he claimed shows the number of COVID-19 deaths and the positivity rate for the virus in Indiana have been exaggerated, even as the report, itself, called for an analysis of all of the data used to guide the state’s response to the pandemic and an audit of Hoosiers’ medical records indicating coronavirus as the cause of death.

Rokita released the report during the Never Forget 2020 Rally in Mishawaka, organized by the South Bend-based Citizens for Common Sense, a conservative organization started about 30 years ago that fought mandatory mask mandates and lockdowns during the pandemic. Publicizing the report in the South Bend area was not a coincidence, since that is where Rokita ignited controversy when, during a live interview on the WSBT TV station in December 2021, he said he did not believe the COVID-19 data.

“I don’t believe any numbers anymore and I’m sorry about that, but they’re politicized,” Rokita said during the 2021 interview. “This has been politicized since day one.”

To prove his point, Rokita said Saturday he “commissioned his staff” to analyze the data. Employees of the attorney general’s office, he said, looked at “nearly 145,000 death records” and concluded the COVID stats cited by state officials were false.

The report – “Analysis of COVID-19: Positivity Rate Data and Death Statistics and the Socioeconomic Impact of Covid-19 Mitigation Policies” – is critical of the lockdowns, school closures and mask mandates that were imposed in Indiana and across the country during 2020 and 2021 to stop the spread of the coronavirus. In the executive summary, the report asserts the state’s COVID data contains “numerous flaws,” which includes a “vastly inflated death count” and “unsound positivity rates.”

However, the bulk of the attorney general’s analysis is not that unequivocal.

It reviews the state’s COVID testing numbers and says the “numbers suggest the (Indiana Department of Health) attributed multiple positive cases to the same person, which could have inflated the positivity rate.” Also, without identifying the individual or providing any supporting documentation, the report claims “a researcher associated with the study” done by the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Fairbanks School of Public Health said not all the data from the third round of testing was released publicly.

The attorney general’s report highlights studies from the University of Washington and Johns Hopkins University to imply that there were lower COVID-19 positivity rates and mortality rates during the pandemic than was shown in the data used by public officials to justify lockdown and mitigation policies. It then suggests, “public health officials should evaluate these studies and publicly report the scientific justification, if any, for the metrics used by the state to impose restrictions.”

In reviewing COVID-19 death statistics, the report details the analysis done by the attorney general’s office of “death certificate data” from March 17, 2020, through Sept. 6, 2022. The report pointed to a different definition of a COVID-19 death by federal health authorities  compared to state health officials and then highlighted what it called “data quality issues” in the state’s death count data to support its claim that COVID-19 deaths were overreported in Indiana. It then concluded with a recommendation that “public health officials audit the medical records underlying a death certificate listing COVID-19 to determine if the deaths were correctly attributed to COVID-19.”

The report is punctuated with footnotes to academic journal articles and studies, as well as information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Indiana health department. It does not indicate that the Indiana attorney general’s office contacted state public health officials or independently verified its conclusions.

“As elected officials, we are all responsible for promoting accountability, accuracy, transparency in matters affecting our constituents and this report is an honest attempt in that endeavor,” Rokita told the Mishawaka crowd during the rally held at the Monterrey Mexican Bar & Grill. “When I was called out for saying something on WSBT that, I thought, we all knew to be true, it turns out it was true and we have to make sure this never happens again.”

Gov. Eric Holcomb’s office declined to comment on Rokita’s report, referring all inquiries to the Indiana Department of Health. The IDOH did not respond to a request for comment.

Organizer: Rally to remember who ‘did right’

The rally was held on the second-floor banquet room of the Monterrey, with the crowd filling their plates at the buffet, before sitting at tables to listen to Rokita, local elected officials, candidates and community activists. An estimated 80 people had registered to attend the free event.

Amy Drake, a member of the Citizens for Common Sense and a Republican member of the St. Joseph County Council, organized the rally, saying she wanted people to remember who “did right” during the pandemic by fighting the lockdowns and mandates, because “so many people didn’t.” She recounted the protests at county council and school board meetings over masks in 2020 and touted the change of leadership at the county’s “tyrannical health department.”

A former speech writer and contributor to “The Federalist,” an American conservative online magazine, Drake said she immediately recognized government overreach in 2020 and maintains that decisions about isolating or masking should be made by the individual and not a governmental body. She remains frustrated, she said, because she sees the Indiana legislature’s increase in spending on public health to $225 million in the 2023-2025 state budget as rewarding local health departments for their overreach.

Drake, wearing a black “Don’t Tread on Me” T-shirt, did not dispute that the coronavirus is real and that people did die during the pandemic.  However, she said, “What I think was exaggerated was the threat and who was at risk.”

As she was planning the rally, Drake said she invited Rokita because he has questioned the data and “he’s not afraid to fight for us.” Also, she said she did not question the attorney general’s ethics or judgment, even as he is being investigated for a second time for misconduct by the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission.

“Who are the people who make up the disciplinary commission?” Drake asked. “We don’t necessarily trust their politics and whether they will retaliate for political reasons.”

 The crowd at the rally, appearing to be mostly retirees, was polite and respectful. When Rokita stepped to the podium, they applauded parts of his speech, said “amen” as he talked about preventing future government lockdowns and booed at the mention of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who led the country’s response to COVID.

Rokita also took some swipes at Holcomb and former State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box, and he called COVID-19 the “Wuhan virus,” a reference to the city in China where many believe the virus originated.

The report is posted on the attorney general’s website under the “Resources” tab. Rokita did not explain who in his office reviewed all the death certificates and he did not indicate the amount of time or money the analysis cost. After he left the rally, he declined to speak with The Indiana Citizen, saying he was 15 minutes late for his next appointment.

Rokita repeatedly mentions WSBT interview

When Rokita spoke to WSBT in 2021, the reporter, Todd Connor, challenged some of his statements.

In particular, Rokita claimed that the hospitals were overloaded with patients because health-care workers did not want to get the COVID vaccine. However, Connor pointed out many medical professionals were leaving the field not because of the mandate that they get vaccinated but because they were burnt out from being overworked since the start of the pandemic.

Rokita responded that “the complaints” his office received were from health-care professionals who said they are changing careers because they did not want to be inoculated.

While speaking in Mishawaka on Saturday, Rokita acknowledged that he had no factual basis for the claims he made in the 2021 television interview. He defended his comments, saying he was questioning the data like many Hoosiers.

Also, Rokita claimed he did not think much about the interview afterward, even though it became national news. That changed, he said, when he saw a press conference a few weeks later in which Gov. Eric Holcomb challenged the attorney general’s assertion, saying, “It’s quite serious when you accuse or insinuate anyone of inflating numbers. In my book that’s called fraud and if there is a shred of evidence, (the attorney general) or others need to take that to the Inspector General of the state of Indiana.”

Rokita told the Mishawaka crowd that the governor’s reaction motivated him to direct his staff to start analyzing the data. He said the resulting report was not to cast blame but rather to promote accountability.

“It’s about those who are in public office now and those who might be in public office in the future that we know, letting them know that we know, and we’re going to be watching,” Rokita said. “We demand nothing less than the widely accepted criteria and procedures and methodology for determining positivity rates, for determining real causes of death before attributing them to a pandemic that, again, locks down entire economies.”

Although Rokita said Holcomb’s comments spurred his decision to look at the data, the WSBT interview was center stage at Saturday’s event. The media alert about the unveiling of Rokita’s report in Mishawaka included mention of his television appearance. Also, the report referenced the interview, Rokita talked about the station in his remarks on Saturday, and when he finished his speech, he took the first questions from the WSBT reporter.

“You’re nicer than the fellow that interviewed me,” Rokita said before the female WSBT reporter spoke. “Is he still there?”

The reporter pointed to the governor’s comments about how inflating COVID numbers would constitute fraud and noted, at the time, that Rokita had downplayed the potential for fraud. She asked Rokita if his opinion had changed, now that his office had conducted its own research and published its report.

Rokita continued to back away from making an accusation of fraud.

“It’s impossible to say that any kind of fraud occurred,” Rokita replied. “Again, the most important reason I’m here today, the most important reason we did the test – and I thank WSBT for asking a question because it started a lot of thinking and a lot of research. We have to make sure we don’t do these same mistakes again and that’s the point of this report.”

Dwight Adams, a freelance editor and writer based in Indianapolis, edited this article. He is a former content editor, copy editor and digital producer at The Indianapolis Star and, and worked as a planner for other newspapers, including the Louisville Courier Journal.

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