The administration’s response was “a full scale disaster, with thousands dying,” Trump tweeted Friday, adding Sunday that it was a “catastrophe.” He has incorrectly blamed Biden directly for the outcome in that case.
“Interestingly, if you go back — please — if you go back to the swine flu, it was nothing like this,” Trump said of that 2009 pandemic during a news conference Friday. “They didn’t do testing like this. And actually, they lost approximately 14,000 people. And they didn’t do the testing. They started thinking about testing when it was far too late.”
(This is itself a classic Trump move, which we might call the “no-puppet.” Under fire for the slow rollout of testing in the United States, Trump claims that it was the Obama administration that wasn’t testing.)
“What we’ve done,” Trump continued, “and one of the reasons I think people are respecting what we’ve done: We’ve done it very early. We’ve gotten it very early.”
As we’ve noted before, this effort by Trump is very similar to the one he used in response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017. Shortly after the storm, he visited the island, celebrating the low number of deaths (under 20 at that point) and comparing his handling of the aftermath with the thousands who died after Hurricane Katrina under President George W. Bush. Of course, those numbers were going to spike and, in fact, doubled even as Air Force One was heading back to the mainland. The death toll eventually surpassed Katrina’s — but Trump has never acknowledged it.
What Trump’s doing now is comparing the total estimate of U.S. H1N1 deaths in 2009 and 2010 to the current tally of coronavirus deaths. (Or, really, covid-19 deaths, referring to the disease the virus causes.) To put it in terms he might appreciate, he’s noting that his score after one hole is significantly lower than what Arnold Palmer shot over the course of the 1960 Masters.
But notice, too, that he’s comparing an estimate with a count. During the H1N1 pandemic, there were estimated to be more than 60 million cases overall. During the first several months of the outbreak, though, the actual count was much lower — just as the current count of coronavirus cases is obviously well below the actual number of infections.
The World Health Organization posted regular updates on the number of H1N1 cases in the United States in the spring and summer of 2009. The first case was on April 15 of that year. By April 24, the total was seven. On April 28, the total hit 60 cases for the first time.
The United States hit 60 confirmed coronavirus cases on Feb. 26. Here’s how the number of cases of each virus increased in the days following the 60th confirmed case.
The pattern is strikingly similar. There’s no evidence here of any significant difference between how each outbreak was handled.
Again, we know that the number of H1N1 infections was actually much higher than what’s shown on each day, in part because epidemiologists later went back and created the estimates that Trump now uses for his comparisons. But we also — again — know that the number of coronavirus cases is much higher, too. We don’t know how much higher, in part because of the slow rollout of testing by the government.
What’s more important in this comparison, though, are those death totals. Trump likes to talk about how many people died of H1N1 (based on estimates). Here’s how the daily tally of deaths related to each illness changed from the day of the 60th confirmed case.
The difference is obvious and striking.
This is largely a function of the deadliness of the coronavirus. H1N1 was actually less deadly than the seasonal flu, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Consider the 2017-2018 flu season, a particularly deadly one. That year, the CDC estimates, there were about 61,000 deaths among 45 million infections. That’s about 1.4 deaths for every 1,000 infections. H1N1, by comparison, saw a bit more than 12,000 deaths among 60.8 million infections — about 0.2 deaths per 1,000 infections.
Covid-19 is estimated to be 10 times deadlier than the seasonal flu.
As with Maria, Trump’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak will not be measured against the current death count but, instead, by the eventual estimated fatality rate. Some estimates figure that the coronavirus pandemic could result in over 1 million deaths, a number beside which the H1N1 pandemic pales.
Hopefully those estimates are far too high and efforts to constrain the spread of the virus will be effective. Should the death toll from covid-19 even surpass H1N1 by a factor of 10, which seems likely, it will be interesting to see how Trump responds. After all, to this day, he’s refused to accept the unhappy reality of what happened on Puerto Rico.
It’s not exactly a political winner for him, after all.