There is an epidemic among President Trump and his allies when it comes to misstating or bungling coronavirus data, but few have butchered it as badly as Donald Trump Jr. just did.
Trump Jr. appeared on the friendly prime-time airwaves of Fox News on Thursday night and confidently stated not once but twice that the coronavirus death toll is approaching nil.
“People are truly morons,” he began, before adding: “The reality is this — I put it up on my Instagram a couple days ago, because I went through the CDC data, because I kept hearing about new cases, but I was like why aren’t they talking about deaths? Oh, oh: because the number is almost nothing.”
“Look at my Instagram,” Trump Jr. said again. “It’s gone to almost nothing.”
For someone calling other people being “morons,” he might have wanted to look a little harder.
It’s been noted that Trump Jr.’s claim was very wrong. Not only did around 1,000 Americans die of the coronavirus the same day he made the comments, but the death toll is actually rising slightly. (Cases are rising much more quickly, but the death toll often lags behind that, given people don’t die instantly and it may take a while for the deaths to be reported.)
But how exactly did he get it so wrong? By, like many Trump allies before him, either not understanding or caring to accurately state official government data.
Trump Jr. referred to his Instagram post. Here is that post:
Why isn’t the ACTUAL data from the CDC being discussed? Why is the media only talking about cases going up (because we are testing) more but the real numbers that matter namely the death rate are way down. Chart one shows actual deaths and the trend going way down. 2nd slide shows that the number of new cases and number of deaths per week are no longer correlated. In other words, while there have been increases in new cases per week, there has actually been a steady decrease in deaths per week. I guess they can’t rule you with fear if they tell you the truth. all data from: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/covid-data/covidview/10232020/specimens-tested.html and https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/covid19/index.htm
A post shared by Donald Trump Jr. (@donaldjtrumpjr) on
That does indeed look a lot like the death rate has suddenly fallen off a cliff and is near zero! But how could that possibly be happening when cases are suddenly on the rise?
The short answer is that it can’t — and it isn’t.
Trump Jr. did what many before him have done in search of supposedly inflated coronavirus death tolls: use data from recent days and weeks that is incomplete because reporting takes a while to come in.
Even in the link he provides, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention clearly states: “Data during this period are incomplete because of the lag in time between when the death occurred and when the death certificate is completed. … This delay can range from 1 week to 8 weeks or more, depending on the jurisdiction and cause of death.”
It adds later: “Counts will not include all deaths that occurred during a given time period, especially for more recent periods.”
Even in the days since Trump Jr. posted this chart, the number of deaths has risen substantially. His chart shows 149 deaths for the week ending Oct. 24, which would be fantastic if it were only true. Alas, that number is now 842 and will undoubtedly rise by several factors in the weeks to come, given we’re still seeing nearly 1,000 deaths per day. His chart also shows 1,477 deaths for the week prior; that number is now 2,626, just a couple days later.
Indeed, to go back to a time in which CDC data shows 1,000 deaths per day, you have to go back to mid-August — which, as it happens, is just outside the 8-week lag window the CDC repeatedly emphasizes. The CDC data lags so much that the White House has reportedly relied upon data collected by journalists instead.
Trump Jr., as noted, isn’t the first to mangle these data. Fox News host Tucker Carlson tried to use lagging CDC data on pneumonia deaths early in the pandemic to suggest that they were perhaps being incorrectly coded as coronavirus deaths. The pneumonia numbers, as expected, soon spiked as they were actually reported. Fellow Fox prime-time host Laura Ingraham did the same thing by citing a report suggesting the CDC had suddenly chopped its coronavirus death toll in half. As Philip Bump noted later, the foolishness of that argument was soon proven by the actual data.
Ingraham’s show just happened to be where Trump Jr. made his ludicrous claim Thursday night. To her credit, she did gently correct the record by noting that, “There are covid-19 deaths. But the question is: Are they really rising with the rising case numbers? … You can see that there may be a slight uptick, but not tracking with the rising case numbers, which frankly is good news.”
It is good news: It’s just not anything close to the news her guest tried to deliver.
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