“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,” I wrote then. “Suggesting that, should we continue on the same path as Italy, we’ll have nearly 10,000 confirmed cases by this time next week.”
The United States passed the 10,000-case mark on March 19.
The White House, however, continued to speak only broadly about the way the pandemic might play out. President Trump transitioned from an insistence on the need for distancing measures mirroring Italy’s one week to an enthusiasm for scaling those back a week later. By Tuesday, reality settled in: The pandemic would lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths in the United States and millions of infections.
Speaking to Fox News on Monday, Trump said he’d been wondering how bad things might get without taking significant action to slow the virus’s spread.
“The answer came in yesterday through Dr. [Anthony] Fauci and through Deborah Birx,” Trump said, referring to two members of the White House coronavirus task force. “The answer came in: If we did that, in other words if we just kept it business as usual, didn’t do anything to stop it or impede it, could have been 2.2 million people could’ve died.”
That was the number Trump, Birx and Fauci reiterated during Tuesday’s news briefing. But it didn’t emerge Sunday, as Trump said on Fox News. The number was released mid-March — conveyed in a report credited with getting Trump to implement the restrictions that had been recommended two weeks ago.
On Wednesday, it was Vice President Pence’s turn to embrace something that has been obvious for a while.
“We have been working very closely with Dr. Deborah Birx and all of our health-care experts on the White House coronavirus task force to give the president the very best projections,” Pence told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “They call it modeling, Wolf, where they look at what’s — what’s happened around the world.”
“We think Italy may be the most comparable area to the United States at this point, for a variety of reasons,” he continued.
Well, yeah. No kidding.
The number of cases in the United States quickly surged past Italy in recent days, though we still trail significantly in the number of deaths. (The reason the virus and the disease it causes, covid-19, are so deadly in Italy are myriad.)
Of course, the United States is much bigger than Italy. As a function of both countries’ populations and adjusted to the point at which each country saw its 100th confirmed infection or its 10th death, the relationship in confirmed cases between the two is more obvious.
Again, it has seemed likely for some time that the United States’ path would mirror Italy’s, but there wasn’t much appetite for embracing that grim scenario.
Fauci was asked March 22 if the United States was on the same trajectory as Italy. He said we weren’t.
“No, not necessarily at all,” Fauci said. “I mean, obviously, things are unpredictable. You can’t make any definitive statement. But if you look at the dynamics of the outbreak in Italy, we don’t know why they are suffering so terribly.”
He noted that the United States quickly shut down travel from China.
“I don’t know why this is happening there to such an extent, but it is conceivable that once you get so many of these spreads out, they spread exponentially, and you can never keep up with this tsunami, and I think that’s what unfortunately our colleagues and our dear friends in Italy are facing,” he added. “They are very competent. It isn’t that they don’t know what they’re doing.”
It isn’t that Fauci and Birx didn’t know what they were doing, either. Part of the reason the United States still mirrors Italy is that, as the country continued down that path, the message from the White House was inconsistent and the response uneven.
But a new focus on consistency probably isn’t really why Pence is now willing to say the United States is on Italy’s path.
At Tuesday’s briefing, Birx specifically used Italy as an example of how the spread of the virus could successfully be curtailed. Italy is now a point of optimism, given that the number of new cases each day has slowed. The White House argues we’re on the same path as Italy because that means we may be about to turn a corner in the fight against the virus.
Let’s hope that’s right.