The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The White House is focused on per capita coronavirus death tolls. Here’s where we rank.

A driver jumps aboard the train in Rome on Monday. (Remo Casilli/Reuters)
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The United States has the most confirmed coronavirus cases and the most confirmed coronavirus deaths in the world. This became true weeks ago, and the gap between us and the rest of the world is only growing.

According to data from Johns Hopkins University, the United States has more than 1.1 million confirmed cases — more than five times that of the next-highest country, Spain, which has about 217,000. We also have more than 68,000 deaths — more than double the next-highest country, Italy, which is at about 29,000.

But these numbers can be somewhat misleading.

President Trump and the White House in recent weeks have begun playing up not the total number of confirmed cases and deaths but rather the per capita numbers. The United States, they note, has a much larger population than many countries facing significant outbreaks, particularly in Western Europe, and looking at things on a per capita basis pushes us down the list when it comes to the size of the coronavirus outbreak.

At times, both Trump and Deborah Birx, one of the leading medical experts on the White House coronavirus task force, have exaggerated these numbers by claiming that the United States has one of the lowest mortality rates in the world.

“Our mortality rate remains roughly half of that of many other countries and [is] one of the lowest of any country in the world,” Trump said recently.

Birx added that we have “one of the lowest mortality rates in the entire world.”

This is not true. Even as we do have a rate significantly lower than some Western European countries dealing with major outbreaks, our rate is higher than the vast majority of other countries — most of which are dealing with many fewer cases.

But the substance of the claim is important. And as the U.S. outbreak continues to grow, it’s worth looking at where we stand relative to other countries with large outbreaks.

While the United States has the highest number of documented infections and deaths, we have the seventh-most per capita deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins data.

When you distill it down to the biggest countries in Western Europe, here’s what the comparison looks like over the past month:

As you can see, the per capita death rate in the United States remains far below that of many Western European countries, including Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom and France. It’s also lower than Belgium and the Netherlands (which are not shown), according to the Johns Hopkins data.

What you also can see from the chart, though, is that with the exception of the United Kingdom, countries with larger outbreaks have a curve that has arced somewhat. Our line, by contrast, has been relatively steady over the past few weeks.

We’ve also had a later start to our outbreak. Some of these countries saw significant and steady climbs in their death rates before they began a leveling off.

Here’s the United States compared with Italy:

United States vs. Italy per capita deaths, over time -- Number of deaths per 100,000 residents, between April 4 and May 2

And here’s the United States compared to Spain:

United States vs. Spain per capita deaths, over time -- Number of deaths per 100,000 residents, between April 4 and May 2

The arc is perhaps most pronounced with France:

United States vs. France per capita deaths, over time -- Number of deaths per 100,000 residents, between April 4 and May 2

One favorable comparison at this point is to the United Kingdom, which has seen its death rate climb even more sharply than the United States, with little sign of any arc:

United States vs. U.K. per capita deaths, over time -- Number of deaths per 100,000 residents, between April 4 and May 2

A less-favorable comparison is to Germany, whose response has been perhaps the envy of Western Europe. It began in April with a somewhat similar per capita death rate to the United States and has avoided anywhere near the kind of increases we’ve seen in countries nearby — or in our own:

United States vs. Germany per capita deaths, over time -- Number of deaths per 100,000 residents, between April 4 and May 2

Exactly what this means moving forward isn’t clear. The United States could be at the start of a prolonged period of steady growth in its per capita death rate — as a reported internal administration report suggests — or it could see an arcing earlier than some of these other countries have seen. We got a later start, so it’s difficult to say with any certainty. But as the outbreak progresses, it’s worth keeping an eye on where we stand relative to the size of our country.

Armand Emamdjomeh contributed to this report.