“Thirty-five thousand people on average die each year from the flu. Did anyone know that?” Trump said to the crowd. “Thirty-five thousand, that’s a lot of people. It could go to 100,000. It could be 20,000. They say usually a minimum of 27, goes up to 100,000 people a year die — and so far we have lost nobody to coronavirus in the United States.”
“Nobody,” he added. “And it doesn’t mean we won’t, and we are totally prepared. It doesn’t mean we won’t. But think of it, you hear 35 and 40,000 people, and we’ve lost nobody. You wonder if the press is in hysteria mode.”
That didn’t hold for long. The next day, Trump held his second briefing on the novel coronavirus in the White House press briefing room.
“Unfortunately, one person passed away overnight,” Trump said. “She was a wonderful woman — a medically high-risk patient in her late fifties.”
The first death was actually a man; the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would later take responsibility for Trump’s misstatement. More important was how quickly the presentation Trump made to his supporters crumbled. That man in Washington state died hours after Trump publicly hailed the lack of any fatalities as a sign of how well his administration was doing.
This has been repeated over and over, with Trump downplaying the death toll of the pandemic to boast about how good a job he’s been doing. Monday was a stark example, as Trump casually tacked an additional 10,000 deaths onto his projected total, increasing it from between 50,000 and 60,000 a week ago to 60,000 to 70,000 now.
More than 14,000 people have died of the virus in the past seven days.
Trump’s first effort to downplay the number of people who might die of the virus came a few days before that South Carolina rally. On Feb. 26, the White House coronavirus task force held its first briefing on the pandemic.
It was then that he first drew the comparison to the seasonal flu, which, even with vaccines and a number of immune individuals in the population, can still kill tens of thousands of people a year.
“I want you to understand something that shocked me when I saw it that — and I spoke with [task force member Anthony S.] Fauci on this, and I was really amazed, and I think most people are amazed to hear it: The flu, in our country, kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year. That was shocking to me,” Trump said. “And, so far, if you look at what we have with the 15 people [with the virus] and their recovery, one is — one is pretty sick but hopefully will recover, but the others are in great shape. But think of that: 25,000 to 69,000.”
Later, he emphasized just how limited the spread of the coronavirus was in the United States.
“When you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done,” he said.
As he spoke, The Washington Post was reporting the first demonstrated instance of “community spread” of the virus: transmission not linked to a known case, suggesting that it was spreading in the wild in California. Eventually, we would learn that by the time of the Feb. 26 briefing, multiple people in that state had already died of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
By early March, nearly two dozen people had died of the virus. Trump reiterated his comparison between the flu and covid-19.
Within four days, that death toll had doubled. In another four days, it doubled again.
By that point, the political landscape had shifted, with former vice president Joe Biden effectively ending the Democratic presidential primary with a string of lopsided wins. Trump seized upon the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic as a point of criticism for Biden, who was then vice president.
Biden was not in charge of the H1N1 response. But, again, Trump is contrasting the 63 deaths that had then resulted from covid-19 with the toll from the 2009 pandemic, hoping that his own response would look good by comparison.
What’s important to remember, though, is that Trump’s presentation of the H1N1 death toll is misleading in two ways. The first is that the estimated toll wasn’t 17,000 but about 12,500 — although the range of possible deaths was from about 9,000 to about 18,000. That’s the second way in which the comparison is misleading. The total toll was a function of an after-the-fact estimate from the CDC, using epidemiological tools to track how many people died of H1N1 given the uncertainties involved in counting each individual death. This is standard practice; Trump’s estimates of seasonal flu death tolls are similarly based on annual estimates of the death toll.
In other words, Trump was comparing apples and oranges — and, as the weeks have passed, he’s kept doing exactly that.
In late March, Trump for the first time acknowledged that the toll from the coronavirus pandemic would be significant. During the briefing on March 31, task force member Deborah Birx explained that modeling of the spread of the virus indicated that some 100,000 to 220,000 people would die if the country adhered to strict distancing measures. That was a lot of fatalities, but far better than the 1.5 million to 2.2 million who might have died had no measures been enacted.
Trump was quick to highlight how bad things might have been.
“The question is: What would have happened if we did nothing? … And that number comes in at 1.5 to 1.6 million people, up to 2.2 and even beyond. So that’s 2.2 million people would have died if we did nothing, if we just carried on our life,” Trump said. “You’re talking about 2.2. million deaths — 2.2 million people from this. And so, if we can hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000 — that’s a horrible number — maybe even less, but to 100,000; so we have between 100- and 200,000 — we all, together, have done a very good job.”
At the time Trump spoke, the death toll stood at somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 deaths. Four days later, it would double once again.
There was a bit of good news in early April, though. One of the leading models of the number of deaths that might result from the virus revised its estimate downward from nearly 90,000 to just over 60,000. Trump was quick to embrace that number as the new expected target.
“The minimum number was 100,000 lives,” Trump said of the prior estimates, “and I think we’ll be substantially under that number.”
“Hard to believe that if you had 60,000 [deaths], you could never be happy, but that’s a lot fewer than we were originally told and thinking,” Trump said. “So they said between 100 and 220,000 lives on the minimum side, and then up to 2.2 million lives if we didn’t do anything. But it showed a just tremendous resolve by the people of this country.”
“We did the right thing,” he added later, “because maybe it would have been 2 million people died instead of whatever that final number will be, which could be 60, could be 70, could be 75, could be 55.”
This was the first time in April that Trump suggested the death toll could fall under 60,000. It’s not clear why he did so, but it does seem likely that his revised estimate derived from the revision to the model produced by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
As we explained last week, though, Trump’s repeated insistence that the death toll might only be 60,000 was again a misunderstanding of the numbers in at least two ways. One was that the IMHE model only projects deaths until August, meaning that a resurgence of the coronavirus in the fall and winter — or a second wave at any time — isn’t included in its tally. The second is that the model is variable, dependent upon new data and estimates.
As it stands, for example, the IMHE model projects about 74,000 deaths by the end of May.
Even last Monday, with the toll at more than 40,000 and the country seeing more than 1,700 new deaths a day on average, Trump insisted that the total number of deaths might be held near 50,000.
“But we did the right thing, because if we didn’t do it, you would have had a million people, a million and a half people, maybe 2 million people dead,” Trump said at the day’s briefing. “Now, we’re going toward 50, I’m hearing, or 60,000 people."
“One is too many. I always say it: One is too many,” he added. “But we’re going toward 50 or 60,000 people. That’s at the lower — as you know, the low number was supposed to be 100,000 people. We could end up at 50 to 60.”
By the end of the week, the country had passed 50,000 deaths.
During Monday’s briefing, Trump was asked if he deserved reelection, given that the number of deaths from the coronavirus in the past six weeks was nearing the total number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War.
“Yeah, we’ve lost a lot of people,” Trump conceded. “But if you look at what original projections were, 2.2 million, we’re probably heading to 60,000, 70,000. It’s far too many; one person is too many for this. And I think we’ve made a lot of really good decisions.”
This was the same argument he made two months ago on Feb. 28.