As cases mounted and localities began shutting down economic activity to contain the virus’s spread, the White House coronavirus task force suddenly took a new approach. It rolled out recommendations aimed at curtailing the rampant spread of the virus, citing data suggesting that, without intervention, between 1.5 million and 2.2 million people might die. With an effort at intervention, the toll might be somewhere from 100,000 to 240,000 deaths.
For a while, this was Trump’s benchmark for success.
“Models predicted between 1.5 million and 2.2 million U.S. deaths — if there was no mitigation, it could have even been higher than that — and between 100,000 and 240,000 deaths with mitigation,” he said in mid-April. “It’s looking like we will come far under even these lowest numbers.”
Even five months later, he was making similar claims. At a briefing in mid-September, he showed the same graph.
“This was our prediction that if we do a really good job, we’ll be at about a hundred and — 100,000 to 240,000 deaths,” he said. “And we’re below that substantially, and we’ll see what comes out. But that would be if we did the good job.”
On Wednesday, the country passed 240,000 deaths from covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. We did not do the good job.
Those deaths, just peeking out of the gray range indicating what the White House long predicted, are a function of the steadily rising number of new coronavirus infections. The country is recording an average of more than 124,000 new cases every day — about the same number of new cases each day as the entire country registered in total until March 28.
How many cases is that? In the past week, 1 out of every 391 Americans has contracted the coronavirus. In about half of the nation’s states, that figure is even more alarming. In North Dakota, for example, 1 out of every 83 residents has been infected with the virus in the past seven days.
While the administration — meaning Trump and right-hand man Scott Atlas — has tried to argue that the number of cases is less important because we’ve gotten better at treating the illness, that is misleading. Since the beginning of July, as we reported Tuesday, there has been a consistent relationship between the number of new cases and the number of deaths two weeks later. There’s similarly been a steady relationship between the number of new hospitalizations and the number of deaths.
On that latter metric, the Dakotas are in a particularly grim position. Hospitals in both states are filling rapidly, with the number of hospitalizations in South Dakota now the third-highest of any state over the course of the pandemic relative to population.
At the peak of the pandemic, in the spring, New York registered 968 covid-19 hospitalizations for every million residents. South Dakota is at 686, according to data from the Covid Tracking Project.
In every state and in D.C., hospitalizations are up over the past two weeks, on average by 54 percent. (That is skewed by increases in states with few hospitalizations; the median value is 42 percent.) That increase and the increase in new cases means ongoing increases in the number of covid-related deaths. It means that we’ll almost certainly continue to average more than 1,000 deaths per day for the foreseeable future.
When the White House first decided to forcefully address the pandemic, it set expectations that the death toll wouldn’t pass 240,000. Perhaps it wouldn’t have if the administration had continued to decide to try to limit the virus’s spread. But the White House, and Trump in particular, largely gave up on that fight.
The result is that, by its own standard, its efforts have failed.