“Getting coronavirus is not a death sentence except for maybe no more than 3.4 percent of our population . . . probably far less,” Johnson said in an interview with his home-state newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, published Wednesday. “We don’t shut down our economy because tens of thousands of people die on the highways.”
If 3.4 percent of the U.S. population perished, that would mean millions and be 10 times the U.S. deaths in every war that America has fought.
The senator’s statistic comes from the World Health Organization’s projected death rate of those who contract the virus, not of an entire population. It’s unclear if Johnson was aware of that distinction about the fatalities from the current global health crisis.
Asked about the comment, Johnson’s office pointed to another quote from the same story where the senator says: “I’m hoping when all is said and done, maybe we have overreacted. But the fact that we’re acting the way we are, I think, will really increase our chances of dropping that growth curve of this [virus].”
Johnson was one of eight senators to vote against a relief package that ensures paid leave to many Americans. The Senate passed the measure Wednesday and sent it to Trump, who signed it into law Wednesday night.
Johnson is one of several Republicans who seemed to minimize the threat of the deadly pandemic despite public health officials and now, Trump, urging Americans to take it seriously.
Until recently, Trump and conservative media downplayed the threat, which has led to a partisan chasm in how the public views the outbreak. A public poll from Pew Research Center found 59 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say the coronavirus is a major threat to Americans’ health compared to 33 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a close ally of Trump, sought to clarify controverisal advice he gave over the weekend that people should defy the government’s guidance and continue eating out at restaurants. But during an interview with a conservative talk radio show in his district on Wednesday, Nunes said there was no reason for panic.
Carla Marinucci, Politico’s California correspondent, tweeted that Nunes said on KMJNOW: “The media is absolutely responsible for this . . . 90% of them are working for the Democrats, working for the left . . . They’re doing dangerous things in this country by whipping everyone up in this panic. There’s no reason to be in this panic.”
Many of the commentators and others who had questioned the seriousness of the disease have adopted a more somber tone in recent days as the nation grapples with rising infection rates, a growing number of fatalities worldwide and the upheaval of normal life from social distancing causing businesses to shutter, schools to close and events to be canceled.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) was derided for tweeting a photo Sunday of a Corona beer bottle while telling people not to panic. This week, he halted campaign events in the midst of the pandemic and said he had created a special page on his Senate website to answer Texans’ questions about the virus.
But Cornyn drew criticism Wednesday for faulting China for the disease.
“China is to blame because the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that, these viruses are transmitted from the animal to the people, and that’s why China has been the source of a lot of these viruses like SARS, like MERS, the swine flu,” he said.
(Neither MERS nor the swine flu originated in China.)
Cornyn faced swift condemnation from Democrats for the remark, which echoes Trump’s insistence on calling the pandemic the “Chinese virus.”
The Texas Democratic Party released a statement urging Cornyn to stop “dog-whistling” and instead “do his job to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and protect families from the impending financial meltdown.”