Speaking to the Wall Street Journal’s Michael Bender on Wednesday, President Trump caught himself.
He was boasting about the recent positive uptick in the economy, as measured by, among other things, improvements in the stock market.
“Nasdaq hit 10,000 for the first time, an all-time record,” Trump said. “Nasdaq, that was three, four days ago. In the middle of the pandemic, not in the middle toward the end of the pandemic.”
That’s where Trump would like to think the country is: at the tail end of the pandemic. This isn’t really a new impulse for Trump, who’s consistently tried to downplay the scale of the spread of the coronavirus in the United States.
In February and March such efforts were mostly in service of not spooking the markets, which got spooked anyway. It seems quite possible that Trump’s motivation now is the same, that he seeks to maintain the sense that the country is ready to see a return to normal economic activity to make the outcome self-fulfilling. He’s pinned his reelection hopes on fixing some of the damage wrought by the pandemic and clearly hopes that the rickety mix of limited reopening and smaller increases in new confirmed cases will serve as the lattice necessary to do so.
Later in the interview with the Journal, he again hinted that maybe the country had emerged from the woods.
“If I didn’t act, we would have had 3 million deaths,” Trump claimed. “And instead we’re at 110,000. And we could be heading to a number that’s, you know, higher than 150,000 to 2,000, it could be ending all now depending on how it goes.”
The wording’s a bit muddled, but he’s making a few points. The first is that the number of predicted deaths could have been 3 million — a figure substantially higher than the 2.2 million upper limit actually presented by the White House in early April. The second is that Trump has again upgraded his estimate of how many Americans might die in the pandemic. For weeks, that number stayed just a few thousand ahead of the actual death toll, as though everything would suddenly just resolve. Eventually, Trump accepted that the situation was more dire, and he stopped talking about it much.
Regardless, the same point: This thing is all but over.
How seriously should we take such claims? Not seriously. Trump was asked about his upcoming rally in Oklahoma, where public health officials have expressed concern about bringing a large group of people together in an enclosed space as the number of cases increases.
“I would even say the spike ends, has already ended,” Trump said of the recent increase in cases in the state.
That’s very much not true, as data from the New York Times and the COVID Tracking Project make clear. The seven-day average of cases in Oklahoma is increasing and currently higher than it has been at any previous point.
Show changes in seven-day average in
over the past 14 days.
Trump has claimed that such increases are a function of increased testing. In Oklahoma specifically, it isn’t; the level of tests completed each day in the state is flat and the percent of positive tests has increased over the past two weeks.
Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s leading epidemiologist and a central figure on the waning White House coronavirus task force, spoke with The Post’s Allie Caren on Thursday and reinforced that the increase being seen nationally isn’t just about testing.
“It’s a combination of testing more, but not explained completely by testing more,” Fauci said, “because some of the states really do have a real increase in the percent of the tests that are positive.”
You can explore which states fall into that category using the above tool.
Fauci’s broader point wasn’t that there’s been a new surge in coronavirus cases.
“We’re still in the first wave,” he said, “because even though there’s variability throughout the country, where some places like New York City are going very nicely down, staying down so that they can start to reopen, simultaneously, we’re seeing in certain states an increase in cases and even now an increase in some of the states of hospitalization.”
That’s obvious when considering the picture from a 10,000-foot level. The seven-day average of new cases per day in the United States has hovered a bit over 20,000 for the past month or so, a sign that the pandemic has stalled out, not that it has declined. In fact, on Wednesday the seven-day average crossed 23,000 for the first time since May 18.
The good news is that the number of deaths each day has trended downward. This is also a bit confusing since, theoretically, the number of deaths from the virus should correlate to the number of cases. Over the entire duration of the pandemic, about 5 percent of those who contracted the virus have died. But that’s changed over time. In April, the number of deaths was 6.6 percent of the number of new cases. So far in June, it’s been 3.6 percent.
Why? In part, perhaps, because the number of cases in April was underreported. This was well before states had significantly geared up their testing, meaning that many cases which existed went undetected. Those which were tracked by health-care professionals were more likely to be those who turned up at hospitals — and, therefore, were sicker. The recent plateau in new cases might simply be a function of our finally beginning to catch up to the actual number of cases.
That doesn’t entirely explain the recent uptick, of course, but we’ll see if that lasts.
This brings us back to the original question: how deadly will this pandemic be? If the number of new cases each day holds near 25,000, the eventual toll will depend on how often those cases are deadly. If the mortality rate moving forward is as low as 2 percent, that means we’ll land at 500 deaths per day — or 15,000 more deaths each month.
One prominent model of how many deaths might be expected is the one from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Its estimate of the eventual toll of the pandemic has varied over time, but its most recent estimate expects more than 200,000 deaths by Oct. 1.
In part that’s because the model predicts an increase in the number of deaths per day toward the end of the summer, when kids go back to school and people are then better able to return to work. It only started modeling out to October this month, so these estimates should be taken with a grain of salt.
Fauci, for one, recommends caution (as he has often before).
“I am skeptical about models, even though they are helpful in some respects, because as I’ve said often and it’s worth repeating, models [are] only as good as the assumptions that you put into the model,” he told Caren, “and the assumptions change based on real data.”
That’s obvious from the changes seen in the IHME projections above.
“You can’t get complacent and say, ‘Oh, the model says even though we’re doing substantial mitigation, we’re still going to get X number of cases,’” he added, “because that might get you to feel, well, that you’re helpless. You’re not. There’s a lot you can do.”
The efforts to contain the virus which halted the economy, for example, are estimated to have prevented 60 million additional coronavirus infections.
The problem, of course, is that Americans need to actually do the things they can do. Trump’s dismissal of the ongoing pandemic as waning or over is clearly an effort to encourage people not to worry about the continued risks, in service of returning the economy to normal and, therefore, to keep boosting those stock indexes.
We don’t yet know whose presentation of where we are is correct, Trump’s or Fauci’s. One, Trump’s, is based on hope and optimism while the other, Fauci’s, is based on the data.
Those two sentiments from those two men have been in conflict before. During a coronavirus task force briefing on March 20, Trump offered a hopeful assessment of an aspect of treating the virus and Fauci a more measured one. When a reporter questioned whether the two sentiments were in conflict, Fauci said they weren’t.
“No, there really isn’t that much of a difference in many respects with what we’re saying. The President feels optimistic about something — his feeling about it,” he said. “What I’m saying is that it might — it might be effective. I’m not saying that it isn’t. It might be effective.” Time would tell, he suggested.
Time eventually weighed in. The subject of the dispute was the drug hydroxychloroquine, and Fauci and data won the debate.
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