“By the way,” Trump said, after disparaging former vice president Joe Biden’s rhetoric on the issue, “we’re rounding the corner. We’re rounding the corner on the virus.”
A reporter pressed him on the point.
“I wanted to ask you about a forecast that has come out from the IHME at the University of Washington,” he said. “They are forecasting by, January the first of next year, that we’ll have 410,000 American deaths from coronavirus, which is 225,000 from where we are right now. So can you explain how you see us rounding the corner, based upon that projection?”
The IHME is the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. It has, as indicated, projected that the death toll from the virus in the United States will exceed 400,000 by the end of the year.
This is notable in part because the IHME’s projections have been used in the past by the White House itself to estimate the trajectory of the outbreak. After initially assuming the pandemic would peak in the spring and the death toll flatten, the group’s projections have grown increasingly stark, with the number of anticipated deaths consistently being adjusted upward.
On the graph below, individual projections are labeled by the date of their release. The most recent is from Sept. 2, shown in green. The colored fields for each projection indicate the range of possible values for any given day; the large striped area denotes projections into the future from the current moment.
It was IHME data, for example, which contributed to the White House’s initial estimates for how the pandemic would unfold. When Trump and the coronavirus task force announced in March that it was endorsing a broad shutdown of the economy, it argued that the country could head down either of two paths: intervening to slow the spread, which could lead to as few as 100,000 to 240,000 deaths — or uncontrolled spread, which could lead to 1.5 million to 2.2 million deaths from the virus.
Over the next few weeks, Trump repeatedly insisted that the number of deaths was nearing its maximum, claiming that the toll would stop at 60,000 or 70,000 or 100,000. He’d make those predictions and, in short order, they’d be exceeded.
Now, the IHME has the 220,000 death mark — identified as the upper bound of what an intervention effort would yield — being passed in early October.
That’s confirmed deaths. The actual number of deaths is likely already over 200,000, based on comparisons of deaths so far this year with expected deaths based on years past.
Trump’s response to the question was myriad now-familiar arguments about how well his administration had done in combating the virus, a claim rendered increasingly dubious by the rising death toll relative to the White House’s own boundaries for successful containment.
“If I didn’t close up [the country],” he said, “we would, instead of the number that you mentioned or whatever it may be, we’re at about 180? We would have perhaps 1.5 or 2 million deaths right now if I went a different direction. Which some people wanted me to do and I decided not to do it, we’d have 2 million deaths.”
He went on to suggest that the death toll was inflated in part by the outbreak in New York state — and, by extension, that the fault lay with that state’s leaders.
“New York has been, in particular, run — whether it’s badly, incompetently or whether it’s unfortunate,” he said. “ … but if you took out New York from those numbers, you can multiply our tremendous success by, by a lot."
It is true that a large percentage of the deaths that have occurred were in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The virus spread quickly in the region, overwhelming hospitals and early enough that treatment options were still limited. But by pointing to New York as exceptional, Trump runs the risk of setting another problematic standard: The state’s death toll might be surpassed by other states before the end of the year.
The IHME model (which ascribes more deaths to the state than does The Post’s data) suggests Texas will have seen more deaths than New York has at this point by year’s end. California is projected to pass New York by early December.
Over time, the percentage of deaths nationally which occurred in New York or in the New York region is expected to decline to less than a fifth of the total — meaning, by Trump’s standard of “bad” or “incompetent” leadership, someone else will be to blame for the other 80-plus percent of deaths.
Underlying all of this, of course, is uncertainty about what happens after the new year. Barring the rapid deployment of an effective vaccine, deaths will continue into 2021, adding to the toll of the pandemic. When the administration unveiled its “1.5 to 2.2 million deaths without intervention” estimate in March, it didn’t set a time limit; presumably, it intended to convey the possible toll over the entire course of the virus’s spread.
Meaning that not only will the country have soon surpassed the upper limit of what the administration itself identified as a situation in which intervention was effective, it’s unclear where the ultimate number will fall.
But this pattern does strongly suggest one thing in particular: The corner we hope to round remains somewhere in the distance.