The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

You might not want to rely on Trump for information about the risk of coronavirus

Trump deploys one of three approaches to infectious diseases, depending on the politics

Pedestrians wear masks to help guard against the novel coronavirus in downtown Tehran on Tuesday. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

If you’re worried about a virus running rampant across the United States, infecting millions and killing tens of thousands — buddy, do I have bad news for you.

See, you’re thinking of the flu. So far this flu season, there have been about 175,000 positive flu tests reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a high number relative to recent flu seasons.

The number of influenza-related deaths recorded by the government is relatively low, happily, though about 3,000 such deaths have been recorded. In recent years, flu cases have peaked between the fourth and 10th weeks of the year, about where we are now.

The figures recorded by the CDC, though, don’t capture every case of the flu. The CDC also compiles estimates of the full scope of the flu’s reach each season. In the 2017-2018 season, for example — one represented by the big spikes on the charts above — it estimates that there were 45 million cases in which people showed flu symptoms and that 61,000 people died of the disease.

Those figures could change because the data for the past two seasons are still preliminary. In other words, the scope of the flu could be broader than that.

We take this for granted. We’re all aware that the flu exists; most of us have had the flu at one point or another. It’s just part of the background noise of winter, something we track or for which we get inoculated.

In September, President Trump issued an executive order focused on modernizing flu vaccines. Beyond that, though, he and his White House have been largely silent on the subject. The White House under President Barack Obama offered sporadic reminders to Americans on social media to get flu shots. Trump hasn’t done so, despite being known as something of a germaphobe.

“I’m not a big fan of the handshake. I think it’s barbaric,” Trump said in a 1999 interview with NBC News. “I mean, they have medical reports all the time. Shaking hands, you catch colds, you catch the flu, you catch this. You catch all sorts of things. Who knows what you don’t catch?”

Part of the reason that Trump hasn’t discussed the flu is that the flu has remained as background noise during his tenure as president and as a presidential candidate. The contagious coronavirus that has shut down large parts of China and is spreading globally is in that regard quite different.

During a news conference in India on Tuesday, Trump downplayed concerns about the illness coming to the United States.

The illness, Trump said, is “very well under control in our country. We have very few with it, and the people that have it are all — in all cases, I have not heard anything other. Maybe there’s something new, because for two days, I haven’t been seeing too much of that news, of very much news because it’s been very all-encompassing. We have — we’ve accomplished a lot here.”

People with the illness, he said, are getting better.

That’s broadly true at the moment, in much the same way that, when Trump visited Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria’s landfall in 2017, the death toll from the storm was under 20, a fact Trump touted. But celebrating that death toll, as Trump did at the time, was premature. Celebrating the containment of coronavirus at this point seems similarly ill-advised.

Speaking to reporters hours after Trump’s news conference, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Nancy Messonnier, told reporters that Americans should expect disruptions as the country seeks to contain the illness.

“Disruption to everyday life might be severe,” Messonnier said. As more and more countries see the virus spread broadly, “successful containment at our borders becomes harder and harder,” she said.

What’s important to remember is that this coronavirus is not exceptionally deadly. Broad spread of a new disease is not something that sounds appealing in the abstract, but, as the Atlantic’s James Hamblin wrote on Monday, it is able to spread broadly because it isn’t very deadly. People live to give it to other people.

Experts with whom Hamblin spoke suggested that the coronavirus may simply become part of the seasonal illness landscape in the same way that the flu is. One indicated that about half the world will be exposed to the virus within the next year, though they probably won’t exhibit severe symptoms. While Trump insisted that a vaccine would be available shortly, such an intervention is still at least a year away — but one almost certainly will be developed.

Why is Trump downplaying the virus? In part because he doesn’t want people to panic about it. (Particularly investors, after stock indexes plunged on Monday.) In part, though, because he wants to project an aura of control over the situation with his reelection looming. As with Puerto Rico, Trump wanted Americans to think that he had everything handled even when he didn’t or may not have.

It’s worth contrasting that with Trump’s response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. At the time, Trump wasn’t involved in politics and was, instead, agitating actively in opposition to the Obama administration. His assessments of what Obama and the government were doing in response to the outbreak were sharply critical, and he demanded that migration from the region be curtailed and insisted that those possibly exposed to the virus be quarantined. A number of conservatives and right-wing media outlets were making similar demands with the 2014 midterm elections looming, but few had quite the same insistence as Trump.

During his news conference on Tuesday, Trump was asked why he objected to the Obama administration bringing patients infected with Ebola to the United States but, in recent days, had allowed patients with the coronavirus to return to the country.

“There’s a big difference, in case you don’t know, between Ebola and coronavirus. Big, big difference. It’s like day and night,” Trump said, not inaccurately. He added: “There’s a very good chance you’re not going to die. It’s just the — it’s very much the opposite. You’re talking about 1 or 2 percent [fatality rate for coronavirus], whereas in the other case, it was a virtual 100 percent.”

Again, this isn’t wrong. But Trump isn’t simply reminding Americans that the coronavirus has a low mortality rate; he’s dismissing it as a threat broadly. It’s hard to think that his approach to Ebola under Obama and the coronavirus under his own administration bears no relationship to his views of the person in the White House at the time.

In short, there are three responses Trump offers to deadly diseases: Scary ones Democrats are responsible for handling are serious, panic-inducing threats. Scary ones he’s responsible for handling are under control and certainly not worth selling stocks over. Constant, pervasive ones that lead to tens of thousands of deaths a year but that don’t attract much political attention barely get mentioned at all.

Acting homeland security secretary Chad Wolf was asked during a hearing on Tuesday what the mortality rate for the coronavirus was. About 2 percent he said, echoing Trump.

He was then asked the mortality rate for the flu. Again, Wolf said, that figure was about 2 percent.

He may have meant worldwide. In the United States, it’s significantly lower than that — 0.095 percent — meaning that a pervasive coronavirus spread could be much deadlier than the seasonal flu. We’re still early in the spread of the disease, so the current estimates of mortality may be overstated, but there’s reason to think that the coronavirus could be a long-term problem.

That’s not what Trump wants us to focus on. Take his assessments of the illness with a grain of salt.