“We had the greatest economy ever, and we have to close it,” Trump said. “If I didn’t close it, I think you’d have 2 million deaths instead of having the 185,000 — 190,000. It’s a terrible number. One is too many.”
That quote is a nice encapsulation of Trump’s recurring rhetoric. An insistence on the immutable value of life — one loss is too many — coupled with a look-it-could-have-been-worse. Trump frames the death toll in Panglossian terms, the best result that could have been expected. One can imagine the captain of the Titanic insisting on pointing out that 900 people didn’t drown.
But then imagine if the captain of the Titanic also suggested that one acceptable strategy to prevent disaster was to try to teach his passengers to swim.
A bit after Trump’s “one is too many” comment, ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos, the event moderator, asked Trump why he had misled the public on the scale of the pandemic, as revealed in an interview with The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward.
“I’m not looking to be dishonest,” Trump said. “I don’t want people to panic. And we are going to be okay. We’re going to be okay, and it is going away. And it’s probably going to go away now a lot faster because of the vaccines. It would go away without the vaccine, George, but it’s going to go away a lot faster with it.”
Stephanopoulos jumped in.
“It would go away without the vaccine?” he asked.
“Sure, over a period of time,” Trump replied. “Sure, with time it goes away — ”
“And many deaths,” Stephanopoulos added.
Trump didn’t deny that.
“And you’ll develop — you’ll develop herd — like a herd mentality,” Trump said. “It’s going to be — it’s going to be herd-developed, and that’s going to happen. That will all happen. But with a vaccine, I think it will go away very quickly.”
It’s not the case that the virus will necessarily “go away.” Past viruses that spurred epidemics are still around, but have either muted effects (thanks to treatments) or have limited spread, thanks to “herd immunity,” which is presumably what Trump meant to say.
Achieving herd immunity is, in fact, one goal in this pandemic. We want better treatments, yes, but we also want to have enough people with antibodies against the virus that it can’t easily jump across different populations. And there are two ways to achieve that immunity: deployment of an effective vaccine; or rampant, largely unchecked spread of the virus.
Trump has focused heavily on the development of a vaccine. But to Stephanopoulos he went further, blithely suggesting that herd immunity through widespread infections might be acceptable if it meant the virus goes away.
The problem with that, of course, is that the coronavirus is deadly in a substantial number of cases. Meaning that if the country achieved herd immunity without a vaccine, the number of people killed by the virus would skyrocket.
How high the death toll might be isn’t clear. Over the course of the pandemic, there have been more than 192,000 deaths out of 6.6 million recorded infections, a fatality rate of 2.9 percent. More recently, though, the number of deaths relative to new cases has been a bit over 2 percent. (That figure is steadier when comparing new deaths each day with new infections two weeks prior, given the necessary time period between infection and death.)
In other words, it’s hard to predict how many people might die of widespread infection. That calculus is made more complicated as well by uncertainty over the necessary spread of the virus to achieve herd immunity. So far, about 2.2 percent of Americans have been confirmed as having contracted the virus. For a typical virus, herd immunity occurs at a 70 to 90 percent spread within a population. That varies depending on the population: More isolated populations can achieve herd immunity at lower densities because there’s less person-to-person interaction. It’s possible that immunity could be achieved at a level closer to 60 percent. Or even lower: Some researchers (though not many) think that it could be in the 10 to 20 percent range in the real world.
If we compare the necessary spread to achieve herd immunity with the fatality rate, we get a wide range of possible death tolls from the virus. If, for example, the fatality rate stays at 2.1 percent and herd immunity can be achieved at 60 percent saturation without a vaccine — that would mean 3.8 million total deaths.
That figure is higher than the 2.2 million figure Trump likes to cite (and did to Stephanopoulos). That estimate of the possible death toll, though, comes from an Imperial College study released in March, which looked only at how the virus could spread over the spring and summer. It was an isolated examination of a certain time period, one that we’re now past.
Again, the calculations in the diagram above are theoretical, and, again, Trump is advocating for the rapid deployment of a vaccine. But being blasé about achieving herd immunity without a vaccine is simply ghoulish.
Nor is it fair to assume that Trump doesn’t see this outcome as a feasible possibility. Right after his comments about herd immunity, he name-dropped Scott Atlas, a doctor who rose to Trump’s attention through Fox News appearances and is now advising the president. Atlas has advocated a herd immunity approach.
When that was first reported, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany was asked about Atlas’s position.
“Yeah, the herd immunity, so-called theory, was something made up in the fanciful minds of the media,” McEnany said two weeks ago. “That was never something that was ever considered here at the White House.”
After all, one death is too many.