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Opinion Trump will lie about the death toll. Kamala Harris wants to stop him.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) wears a protective mask at a hearing in Washington on May 5. (Andrew Harnik/AP Photo/Bloomberg)
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The signs are everywhere: President Trump’s endgame will be to lie about the coronavirus death toll, in a last-ditch effort to prevent it from overwhelming his reelection hopes.

Is there anything we can do to be prepared for this?

A group of Democratic senators, led by Kamala Harris (Calif.), is set to launch a new effort to try to block it from happening. They are putting the administration on notice about any future efforts at death deflation, and calling on officials to work with outside experts to establish a methodology from which it will not diverge, before Trump inevitably begins concertedly low-balling the death count.

This new push amounts to more than an effort to block Trump’s coming disinformation campaign. Getting the death count right is critical to holding the administration accountable for the true human cost of its failures, and to establishing a firm understanding of facts on the ground as we reopen society, a process Trump is already corrupting to its core.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

The senators are sending a letter to the administration’s top health officials, calling on them to establish a protocol that will “ensure an accurate and transparent death toll and consistent Covid-19 statistics.”

Speculation by Fox News and the president about covid-19 cures is making it more difficult for health officials to do their job, says media critic Erik Wemple. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Alex Brandon / AP/The Washington Post)

We know Trump is preparing to concertedly deflate the death toll. He has publicly accused New York City of inflating its death totals. And he has privately begun questioning the overall death count, according to officials.

Meanwhile, Axios reports that a senior official expects Trump to “publicly begin questioning the death toll” once it exceeds his previously stated expectations and “damages him politically.” And the White House is reportedly prodding health officials to revise its methodology in a way that will depress death counts.

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Here in the real world, experts agree that it’s highly likely that official U.S. death tallies — currently at more than 80,000 — are an undercount, as Anthony S. Fauci, the leading member of Trump’s coronavirus task force, has acknowledged.

In their letter — which is addressed to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Peter T. Gaynor — the Democratic senators write that they are “gravely concerned” that Trump and some officials are “attempting to deflate the number of deaths.”

Harris’s letter is also signed by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Edward J. Markey and Mazie Hirono (Hawaii). Others are expected to join before it is sent on Friday.

Last month, Harris sent another letter to the administration, highlighting numerous problems in how deaths are currently counted — such as inconsistencies in methods used by states and insufficient testing, which could be producing undercounts.

That letter urged the administration to work with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to develop “clear, temporary, federal guidelines” in counting deaths. In the new letter, the Democrats note that they haven’t heard anything back from the administration.

Yet, perversely enough, in that very same interim, signs have been mounting that Trump and some officials are moving toward undercounting deaths based on dubious methods.

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If anything, we’re undercounting deaths

Indeed, other officials in Trump’s own administration worry about this. The Daily Beast recently reported that the White House is pushing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to exclude from the death count those without confirmed positive lab results and those who had the virus but might have died of something else.

But CDC officials pushed back, because they worry it could “falsely skew the mortality rate at a time when state and local governments are already struggling to ensure that every person who dies as a result of the coronavirus is counted,” the Daily Beast reported.

In fact, an overcount is the last thing we need to worry about. As a New York Times investigation showed, overall deaths are far higher than normal where coronavirus has hit hardest, and are far outpacing reported coronavirus deaths, which suggests it’s “probably killing more people than the reported statistics capture.”

And so, the Democrats demand in their new letter that the administration work with outside experts to “establish interim guidelines specifically for this pandemic and put an end to inconsistent data and messaging.”

Trump’s inclination, of course, will be to throw this letter in the trash. But, by making these objections public, senators are highlighting the administration’s refusal to establish clearer protocols, allowing us to view any future downgrading of death counts with more skepticism. Democrats can keep hammering this point, making it harder for Trump to get away with his efforts to deceive the public.

The Puerto Rico precedent

There’s also a precedent here that’s terrible to contemplate. As the Democrats note in their letter:

The misinformation surrounding the Covid-19 death count is not a new tactic from President Trump. This is the exact behavior that led to an extreme undercount in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, agrees that the comparison to Puerto Rico is an unsettling one.

“This whole response has just been like Puerto Rico on steroids,” Konyndyk said. “It’s the federal government refusing to take responsibility, and the president refusing to admit any errors, and by doing so, compounding the errors he’s making.”

This dispute is far from an academic one. If we undercount deaths, it will create the impression that the coronavirus is less dangerous than it really is, leading to an overly rapid reopening by state governments and less care taken by all of us as individuals.

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“There has been a lot of motivated reasoning from people trying to underplay the danger of this,” Konyndyk told me. “If the death toll is lowered, or can be construed as lowered, then less needs to be done to stop it.”

“The potential for this disease to kill large numbers of people is greater than any public health threat we’ve seen in our lifetimes,” Konyndyk continued. “If people underestimate the dangers, then fail to take sufficient measures, more people are going to die.”

Konyndyk concluded: “The disease doesn’t care how deadly you think it is.”

No, it doesn’t. It also doesn’t care how deadly Trump thinks it is. But the rest of us should.

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