The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With new coronavirus cases hitting a high, Trump revisits his fantasy: The virus will just go away

Two-thirds of the time after he’s said that, cases and deaths were up two weeks later

Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, President Trump has repeatedly said that the virus will disappear. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Over the past five months, President Trump’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic has swerved around a bit, with the president at times embracing strict controls meant to contain the virus and, at others, the urgent need to scale back those controls to boost the economy. But there’s been no more consistent message from Trump than his most defiantly optimistic one: At some point, the virus will simply disappear.

Speaking to Fox Business’s Blake Burman on Wednesday, the president again speculated that, perhaps, the virus will simply pack up and leave.

“I think we’re going to be very good with the coronavirus,” Trump said. “I think that, at some point, that’s going to sort of disappear, I hope.”

“You still believe so?” replied Burman. “Disappear?”

“Well, I do, I do,” Trump replied. “Yeah, sure.”

It will not simply disappear, barring one of a few significant occurrences. One is that a vaccine is developed and deployed, a best-case scenario toward which the administration is aimed — but one that can’t really be described as the virus “disappearing.” Under those circumstances, the virus will have disappeared the way Jimmy Hoffa did: with a little help.

The only way in which the virus could simply disappear, really, is if the population of the United States either stops interacting with one another entirely for a few weeks or if enough people have antibodies against the virus that it can’t gain a foothold to continue its spread. That is a phenomenon known as herd immunity and requires either the aforementioned vaccinations or for some three-quarters of Americans to contract the virus and develop antibodies. Assuming an optimistic 1 percent mortality rate, that would mean more than 2.4 million American deaths.

In that scenario, the virus would be going away the way a nuclear bomb detonating in Central Park would be going away.

Trump’s approach to the pandemic has consistently been one of unjustified optimism. That optimism has at times been obviously and immediately meant to reassure investors that all will be well, but it’s really hard to think that many investors watching Fox Business will hear Trump’s assurances at this point and take them seriously.

Why? Well, first of all, because the seven-day average of new confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States is higher than at any prior point in the pandemic. Surging case totals in Arizona, Texas and Florida in particular have pushed the number past 40,000. It’s important to note that low testing capacity in March and April means that the numbers for those months are certainly undercounted, but it’s certainly not the case that the virus is “going away.”

The other reason investors might be skeptical of Trump’s assurance about the virus disappearing is simply that it is a claim he’s made time and again. By our count, including Wednesday’s mention, Trump has claimed on at least 19 occasions that the virus will go away. Over and over and over, the same assurance.

Trump often adds some conditions under which it will go away, like claiming repeatedly in February that it would go away when the weather got warmer. The weather is currently warmer than it was then, particularly in states like Arizona and Texas.

So not only have Americans heard this before, but they’ve also seen the pandemic continue to expand despite Trump’s comments. In fact, the two-week periods after Trump has claimed that the virus will go away have been more likely to see increases in the number of confirmed cases than decreases.

Of the 17 times Trump has claimed the virus will go away for which there is available data from two weeks later, the daily average number of cases has increased 11 times — 65 percent of the time. Looking at every day since Feb. 10, when Trump first said that the virus would go away, the two-week change in the daily average has increased 58 percent of the time, meaning that Trump’s comments are more likely to precede increases in new cases than another random day.

The median change in the average number of new cases in the two weeks after Trump says the virus will go away is an 81 percent increase. The median change overall since Feb. 10 is a 21 percent increase.

The pattern holds for deaths related to covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. The median change in the average number of daily deaths in the two weeks after Trump predicted the virus would go away is a doubling in the number of deaths. The median change overall is a 15 percent decrease.

Part of that, of course, relates to Trump’s more frequent assertions that the virus would go away earlier in the pandemic. And while he was still wrong, it at least made some sense to offer that prediction in early February, simply because the low number of cases made it seem at least theoretically possible.

It no longer does. In fact, it’s very possible, if not likely, that the coronavirus that emerged last year will never go away, becoming a seasonal illness for which people are regularly vaccinated. That’s what happened to the influenza virus that caused a pandemic a century ago. It’s still around, although, happily, it isn’t wreaking the same level of havoc.

The best we can hope for over the short term is that the two weeks following Trump’s most recent iteration of optimism is among the third of times when the case total actually decreases.