He added a bit later: “Everybody has to be vigilant and has to be careful. But be calm. It’s really working out. And a lot of good things are going to happen.”
It’s true that the virus will go away, in a sense. A briefing offered to congressional staffers Tuesday by that body’s attending physician, Brian Monahan, indicated that it would go away once between 70 million and 150 million people had been infected with the virus.
Experiences in other countries indicate that 80 percent of those who fall ill with covid-19, the illness caused by the virus, will have “mild” symptoms — in which “mild” includes such symptoms as “developing pneumonia.” The other 20 percent may need to be hospitalized. The World Health Organization currently estimates that the disease has a worst-case mortality rate of 3.4 percent, but that is likely to drop. In a hearing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, coronavirus task force member Anthony Fauci pegged the mortality rate at a lower level, about 1 percent of cases.
In other words, the spread of the virus across the United States could result in between 14 million and 30 million people having severe cases of the illness and between 700,000 and 1.5 million people dying — accepting Fauci’s lower estimate of mortality.
But then it will go away.
Trump’s efforts to downplay the spread of the virus depend on the numbers of confirmed infections remaining low. As recently as Monday morning, Trump sought to tamp down concern about the coronavirus by comparing it to the seasonal flu.
Those numbers are generally correct but also derive from lower total infection numbers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there were about 34,000 deaths from the seasonal flu in the 2018-2019 flu season, out of 35.5 million cases. The coronavirus may infect twice as many people and kill 20 times as many, according to experts speaking to Congress. Trump’s argument depends entirely on those numbers staying low.
He tweeted that comparison to the seasonal flu around 11 a.m. Monday morning. The number of cases had more than doubled by midday Wednesday.
The rate of growth in recent days has been staggering. A week ago, there were about 150 recorded cases in the United States and 11 recorded deaths. As of writing, those numbers are at 1,110 and 30, respectively.
Compared with Italy, the situation in the United States isn’t that bad. We’ve got about one-tenth of the cases that Italy does. (Recorded cases, at least. There are an unknown number of cases in the United States that haven’t been identified with testing.) Italy’s tally is over 10,000 cases, prompting the country to close its borders and leading to enormous strain on its hospitals.
After all, consider what it means to need to hospitalize 14 million Americans in a country with fewer than a million hospital beds. That’s why medical experts are encouraging people to work to limit the spread of the disease, aiming to keep the number of patients actively needing hospitalization within an acceptable range at any given time. Even if 70 million Americans are infected and 14 million need to go to the hospital, there’s a big difference in terms of resource management between that happening over the course of one month (467,000 patients a day) and that happening over the course of a year (38,000 patients a day).
The challenge is that while Italy’s situation is more dire than that of the United States, that may only be temporary. If we shift the increase in cases and deaths in Italy back eight days, the spike that country saw matches the recent growth in the United States neatly.
Suggesting that, should we continue on the same path as Italy, we’ll have nearly 10,000 confirmed cases by this time next week. That’s still not at “seasonal flu” levels — yet — but it’s a big shift for a deadlier disease over the course of a few weeks.
This is the concern that Trump’s rhetoric continues to downplay. He wants Americans to remain calm, which is fair, but his insistence that the disease will simply go away ignores what probably will happen before it does.
It brings to mind a comment Trump made at a news briefing about the coronavirus on Feb. 29.
“Healthy individuals should be able to fully recover,” Trump said. “… They should be able to recover should they contract the virus. So, healthy people, if you’re healthy, you will probably go through a process and you’ll be fine.”
Extending that into a metaphor: A healthy country should be able to fully recover. It … will probably go through a process before it does.
Update: During an event in the White House on Wednesday afternoon, Trump finally acknowledged the increase in the spread of the virus.
“The numbers from a week ago were great, from two days ago were great — but now we’re hitting a patch,” he said. “And we’re going to have to do something with respect to … getting rid of this virus as quickly as possible and as safely as possible.”
“If we get rid of the coronavirus problem quickly,” he said at another point, “we won’t need [economic] stimulus.”
True. But not likely.