Sen. Scott Jensen’s national profile rises, while medical authorities question his claims

State Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, has given voice to claims some medical experts say are conspiracy theories. He appeared on Fox News' "The Ingraham Angle" on Wednesday, April 8.

State Sen. Scott Jensen has rocketed to national notoriety this week after suggesting that the Minnesota Department of Health was “coaching” doctors to rule COVID-19 as a cause of death in some suspected cases without lab confirmation. 

The implication — even if unintended by the Chaska family doctor — is that COVID-19 deaths are being overcounted and thus the drastic response of government officials overweening. 

The Republican senator found a receptive audience on Fox News’ “The Ingraham Angle” Wednesday. His assertion was picked up by the conspiracy site InfoWars, whose founder Alex Jones once alleged the Sandy Hook massacre of children was a hoax. 

Jensen sounded surprised by all the attention in an interview with the Minnesota Reformer Thursday. He’s unfamiliar, he said, with media personalities like Jones. 

“I’m glad to step onto a show and provide a perspective, but I think one of the perspectives I bring to the table quite frankly is a guy in the trenches,” he said. “I’m not really an expert at much. I’m more a jack of all trades. I’m a guy in the trenches, seeing patients every day.”

He rejected the conclusions being drawn by far right voices that overhyping the COVID-19 crisis is a plot to destroy the reelection chances of President Donald Trump. “In medicine we don’t think that way,” he said. 

On a previous television appearance on “Point of View” with Chris Berg, a local Fargo, N.D. news and opinion program, Jensen sketched a darker hypothesis. 

When Berg asked Jensen why health officials would “skew” death figures, he responded. “Well, fear is a great way to control people.” Asked to elaborate, he told the Reformer, “The fear with COVID-19 has been ratcheted unbelievably high. There have been a lot of figures in government who are trying to frighten people and, in that way, get them to do what they want.”

Consciously or not, Jensen is staking his medical credibility — and his political future — on a contrarian take on Minnesota’s response to COVID-19. In addition to his skepticism about the Department of Health guidelines — which in fact came from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — he’s gone against the broad consensus of the medical community, minimized the risks of COVID-19 and criticized Gov. Tim Walz for freezing the state’s economy in an attempt to slow the spread of the disease.

Jensen, 65, has announced he’s not running for reelection this year in a closely watched battle for control of the state Senate. He’s thought to be considering a 2022 run for governor and did not dismiss the possibility in a Reformer interview.

The pandemic offers him both great political opportunity and risk. He’s a medical authority at a time people are looking for credible and accurate information from public health experts during a pandemic that has killed more than 16,000 people in the U.S. and more than 50 MinnesotansIf his opposition to aggressive anti-COVID measures turns out to be wrong, he could face backlash.

In any future run, he will likely be judged prescient or reckless in his COVID-19 judgments. 

Jan Malcolm, the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health who also served for both Gov. Jesse Ventura and Gov. Mark Dayton, took the rare action Thursday of publicly pushing back on Jensen’s claims. 

“There’s been some confusion about this and some misinformation about this circulating on social media that I wanted to address head on,” she said, launching into an explanation of the COVID-19 death counting process. 

Jensen’s colleagues in the medical community are also wary of his charge. 

Dr. Renée Crichlow, president of the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians, disputed Jensen’s characterizations of the guidelines as heavy handed. 

“I treat CDC guidelines like CDC guidelines are meant to be treated: They are supposed to help you make decisions,” she said. “They’re not dictates. They’re called guidelines for a reason. They’re not rules, they’re not orders, and they help inform decision making.”

Crichlow, who heads an organization that represents more than 3,100 family doctors in the state and once named Jensen it’s “doctor of the year,” said physicians are being forced to make COVID-19 diagnoses without access to testing. 

“We are unable to test to the appropriate amount and we have people we know are dying in a manner consistent with the illness that is the pandemic right now,” she said. 

Crichlow encouraged Jensen to use his megaphone to get more tests: “The biggest thing right now is not to fight over guidelines, but to advocate,” she said. “A senator is an excellent person to advocate for more testing. The more testing that we have, the fewer presumptives we’ll have.”

The top two medical experts on Trump’s coronavirus task force, Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci, have also rejected claims of padding COVID-19 death data. “You will always have conspiracy theories when you have a very challenging public health crisis. They are nothing but distractions,” Fauci said. 

Fox’s Laura Ingraham later played Fauci’s comments for Jensen, asking him to react. Jensen scoffed, and said: “I would remind him that any time health care intersects with dollars, it gets awkward.”

Jensen attributed financial motives to the CDC guidelines, saying Medicare will pay hospitals based on the number of COVID-19 patients and treatment they receive. “Nobody can tell me after 35 years in the world of medicine, that sometimes those kinds of things impact on what we do.”

His recent comments are not the first time he contradicted medical authorities on the coronavirus. In March, he referred to the virus in a Facebook post as a “mild four day respiratory illness (which poses little risk to more than 95% of people.”)

He also objected to it “being allowed to pervasively dismantle employment, undercut communication with one another and disrupt our essential support structures for the challenged and disabled persons who rely on a certain level of business as usual.”

Sen. Matthew Klein, DFL-Mendota Heights, also a physician, gently rebuked him at the time, saying, “The recent experience in Italy suggests that treating COVID-19 as a mild virus and following usual socializing patterns has led to a massive collapse of the health care system, thousands of deaths, and economic devastation.”

Even as nightmare images of New York City have filled the airwaves in recent weeks, Jensen has continued broadcasting his contrarian views.

He and two fellow senators published a recent “open letter” in the Star Tribune that criticized Walz, writing that “Some of the tools employed fighting COVID-19 are creating needless harm to our citizens’ mental and financial well-being, while providing no benefit in the fight.”

He told the Reformer recently he’s changed his mind somewhat about the dangers of COVID-19, now placing the risk at more like 10% of the population, or double his previous March speculation. He also acknowledged the risk even to otherwise healthy people. “What confounds me is that we have a group of healthy people that shouldn’t be getting sick.”

Jensen’s sometimes eccentric manner on the political stage is in character. From his first appearance in the Senate after his 2016 election, he has often noted his medical pedigree, immediately diving into some of the most contentious debates at the Capitol on insulin and cannabis. 

In the clubby world of the Capitol’s upper chamber, in which partisan and interest group loyalty are closely measured and prized, he has been an outlier. He eschewed custom for a freshman by frequently making Senate floor speeches. He thrilled some and exasperated others by going against his party on guns, a public health insurance option and legal cannabis — before reversing himself, often saying he merely sought to catalyze debate.

But if his approach has been unorthodox, it has not been without effect. 

Jensen said in an email that he was reassured by new Minnesota Department of Health guidelines sent out Thursday: “Its use of words like ‘confirmed’ and ‘accurately’ matter and will reassure physicians who are charged with the responsibility of completing death certifications.”  

And on the political front, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, and another potential 2022 candidate for governor, reversed course Thursday, calling for an end to Walz’s stay at home order.

Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.