Instead of deferring to Fauci, Trump handled the question himself.
“I could ask Dr. Fauci to come up, but it’s common sense,” Trump said. “You’re going to have massive depression, meaning mental depression. You’re going to have depression in the economy also. But you’re going to have mental depression for people. You’re going to have large numbers of suicides.”
He continued, warning that the country would see drug addiction “more than anything else.”
“You will see drugs being used like nobody has ever used them before,” Trump said. “And people are going to be dying all over the place from drug addiction, because you would have people that had a wonderful job at a restaurant, or even owned a restaurant.”
Much of Trump’s rhetoric at the time was centered on the idea that the restrictions on economic activity that he’d briefly endorsed could and should be set aside. Coming into the pandemic, his concerns had largely been framed on the economic disruptions that might occur. After the initial effort to slow economic activity in hopes of taming the virus, by the end of March, he’d again turned his attention to prioritizing economic growth — certainly in part out of concern about the November election.
As it turns out, Trump’s fears that the country might see a surge of suicides or drug overdoses didn’t play out as he’d warned.
Data published by JAMA Network last week show that the number of suicides in the United States fell by about 2,700 in 2020 relative to 2019, a decline of more than 5 percent. That continued a downward trend in the country from the previous year.
The number of suicides was still higher than in 2015, but that doesn’t seem like the useful benchmark for this comparison.
Drug overdoses do appear to have increased significantly after the pandemic emerged. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the provisional number of overdoses (calculated as a 12-month running total) surged after February 2020. An analysis of those data by the Commonwealth Fund estimates that the number of overdoses in the country rose from about 6,000 in February to more than 9,000 three months later.
There are two important caveats to those numbers.
The first is that the figure in February was lower than the prevailing trend. Monthly overdoses had increased by 13 percent from December 2018 to December 2019, the Commonwealth Fund estimated.
The second and more important caveat is that the increase in overdose deaths doesn’t appear to be correlated to places with stricter stay-at-home orders. In mid-April, Trump famously called for the “liberation” of Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia from what he presented as draconian containment measures. The 12-month provisional overdose count in those states increased from August 2019 to August 2020 by 14.4, 31.8 and 30.5 percent, respectively. Arizona, Florida and West Virginia, states that Trump at various points praised for their responses to the pandemic, recorded increases of 40.2, 40.1 and 40.6 percent. The increases in New York City and New Jersey, two of the hardest-hit places, were 27.3 percent and 6.6 percent.
Overall, the JAMA Network analysis puts the coronavirus death toll in the United States in 2020 at about 345,000. If one combines the estimated monthly overdose toll for 2020 and the number of suicides, the total is less than a third of that number. That’s not a sum of any increase in those figures, mind you, but the total overall. Even adding 34,000 overdose deaths to the total (because the CDC figures run only through August), the total is still only 40 percent of the number of coronavirus deaths.
It’s obviously good news that Trump’s dire predictions weren’t manifested. But as the pandemic continues, it’s worth pointing out that they weren’t. Stay-at-home orders exact a real toll in a number of ways. But the coronavirus itself has exacted a much larger and more tangible one.