At no point, for example, was Trump forced to confront his recurring comparison of the current pandemic to the seasonal flu. It’s an analogy that he made frequently to downplay the risk posed by the novel coronavirus until last week, when he finally embraced strong measures advocated by public health experts.
In recent days, though, Trump has grown tired of those measures, which include a broad shutdown of U.S. businesses, like his own. So he’s ramped up his efforts to downplay the scale of the coronavirus risk.
Trump described being approached in the Oval Office by experts recommending that broad measures be implemented to curtail the spread of the virus.
“One of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made, because I knew that when you do it, as soon as you do it, you’re going to drop — I mean, they’re talking about 20 or 25 points of GDP,” Trump said. “Nobody’s ever heard of 25 points. If we went down a point, that’s a big deal. Now, all of a sudden, you’re basically turning off the country.”
“I said this is never been done before,” he continued. “What are you talking about? But we understand it. You have hot spots, but we’ve had hot spots before. We’ve had horrible flus. I mean, think of it. We average 36,000 people. Death, death. I’m not talking about cases. I’m talking about death. 36,000 deaths a year. People die, 36 — from the flu. But we’ve never closed down the country for the flu.”
Again, this has been a common refrain of Trump’s. Two weeks ago, he made the same case on Twitter.
He’s also defended his approach to the coronavirus by comparing it with the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak, which he has claimed cost 17,000 lives and demonstrated how poorly his predecessor Barack Obama — and, pointedly, former vice president Joe Biden — handled the situation then.
So why aren’t these comparisons fair? The differences in the threats posed by the coronavirus are that it’s deadlier than the seasonal flu and there are no firewalls in place to stop its spread. The seasonal flu can be slowed through flu shots, vaccinations against expected strains. The coronavirus that’s behind the pandemic emerged late last year as a new virus, meaning that no vaccines exist to counter it and that no one has immunity from it after building up antibodies against it.
In broad terms, Trump’s depiction of the seasonal flu risk is accurate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculate the estimated spread of the flu during each season (generally speaking, the course of a winter). Worse flu seasons see more cases, more hospitalizations and more deaths.
The current season, despite Trump’s insistence, isn’t particularly bad in terms of estimated effects, with an expectation of between 23,000 and 59,000 deaths, about in line with other recent years.
What Trump is doing in comparing the risk of the novel coronavirus with the average death toll from the flu each season is a comparison of apples with oranges. Tens of thousands of people do, in fact, die of the flu each year without the country shutting down. But in particularly bad flu seasons, there is a strain on health-care resources as cases quickly mount. That’s the problem with the coronavirus, given its novelty: It’s spreading quickly and threatening the ability of hospitals to handle the caseload.
As flu season ramps up, so do reports of possible flu cases. The CDC tracks reports of “influenza-like illnesses” on a weekly basis. You can see how, in the last few months of 2019, the number of weekly reports increased.
The escalation of confirmed coronavirus cases, meanwhile, has happened much more rapidly. There’s also been some speculation that increased reports of flu-like illnesses in recent weeks — the little uptick on the top line — might be a function of people presenting symptoms of coronavirus infection.
We see a much faster rate of spread from the coronavirus than we did in 2009 from the H1N1 strain that emerged that year. While the total estimate of loss of life from that pandemic was above 12,000, that again is a total that was estimated after the fact. As the virus spread, there were similar reports to those we now see on a daily basis, tracking the number of cases and the number of deaths that resulted.
The World Health Organization published regular reports on the spread of the virus in the United States. Here’s how they compared with the emergence of the coronavirus in the days since the 60th infection was reported.
You see clearly that the novel coronavirus is expanding more quickly than did H1N1. The R0 for that virus, the rate at which it spread, was between 1.2 and 1.6, meaning that each infected person might be expected to infect 1.2 to 1.6 other people. The R0 for the novel coronavirus is estimated to be around 2.3.
So it spreads more quickly. But you probably also noticed the higher death toll. That’s because the mortality rate of the H1N1 virus was much lower.
The seasonal flu is also much less deadly. Using the CDC’s estimates of this flu season, the mortality rate of the seasonal flu this year is somewhere between 0.04 percent (23,000 deaths out of 53 million infections) or 0.16 percent (59,000 deaths out of 38 million infections). Data compiled by Johns Hopkins University put the current mortality rate of the coronavirus in the United States at about 1.2 percent — 600 deaths from about 50,000 cases.
That may be high. Many coronavirus infections don’t present significant symptoms, and many existing cases haven’t been confirmed. The more cases there are that don’t result in death, the lower the mortality rate. It’s estimated, though, that the virus is about 10 times deadlier than the seasonal flu, which the numbers above mirror.
That rapid spread and deadlier effect is precisely why those experts walked into the Oval Office. It was necessary to stop business as usual because it’s necessary to try to limit the spread of the contagion. It’s not like the seasonal flu because it’s deadlier, and its novelty means it can spread more broadly, faster. The data reinforce that threat.
But if you simply want to get things back to normal by Easter, you might take some solace in the fact that so many more people die of the flu each year than have died of the novel coronavirus so far. You might just convince yourself that, hey, we go through infections like this all the time.
If you’re inclined toward that line of argument, you might notice something else about Trump’s tweet from March 9 in which he compared the coronavirus to the flu. Since then, the number of coronavirus deaths is 27 times bigger. The number of confirmed cases is 85 times as large.
In the past 15 days.