Trump mischaracterizes new models showing grim coronavirus death projections

As President Trump pushes for businesses to reopen — even though the US coronavirus outbreak is not under control — his response to two new models indicating that cases and deaths will increase in the coming weeks is to mischaracterize them.

The models are grim, with one projecting 135,000 Americans will die by early August, and the other estimating the US will see 3,000 daily deaths by June 1. Grilled about them on Tuesday by reporters ahead of his departure for a trip to Arizona, Trump dismissed them, falsely claiming they are based on “no mitigation,” as in, if we did nothing.

“We’re doing a lot of mitigation,” Trump said. “And, frankly, when the people report back [to work], they’re gonna be social distancing, and they’re gonna be washing their hands, and they’re gonna be doing the things that you’re supposed to do … but that report is a no-mitigation report, and we are mitigating.”

But the fact is, the US is doing less mitigation than it was a few weeks ago. States are beginning to reopen nonessential businesses, and customers are beginning to patronize them.

And the two new models — one based on government data put together by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and another by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington (IHME) — take this into account. Both feature projections based on the relaxation of mitigation that Trump has championed by urging state governments to take steps to reopen businesses, even as none of them has met the White House coronavirus task force’s gating criteria for doing so.

For instance, as the New York Times reports, the IHME’s new model, which estimates that the coronavirus will claim nearly 135,000 lives in the US by early August, states that its upward revision is based on “rising mobility in most US states as well as the easing of social distancing measures expected in 31 states by May 11, indicating that growing contacts among people will promote transmission of the coronavirus.” (The FEMA document shows that the daily US death toll will reach 3,000 by June 1, a near doubling of the roughly 1,500 lives being claimed per day by the coronavirus right now.)

Trump’s comments indicate that he thinks workers being diligent about washing their hands and trying to keep distance from other people will be sufficient to slow the spread of the virus, but experts say that’s not the case. Stay-at-home orders and the shutdown of most businesses haven’t so far been sufficient to bend the trajectory of new cases down, they’ve merely gotten the country to a relative plateau in new cases and deaths. This suggests the number of new cases and deaths will likely get worse as things reopen.

It is for these reasons that public health experts think it’s premature to relax stay-at-home orders. But later during his comments outside the White House on Tuesday, Trump indicated he thinks there’s no choice but to try to get the economy going again.

Asked by a reporter if he’s concerned that deaths are projected to increase because states are relaxing social distancing guidelines too early, Trump responded that he isn’t because “the fact that we’re letting people go and go to their jobs — they have to do it.”

“You know, if they held people any longer with the shutdowns, you’re going to lose people that way too, and you already have, I’m sure,” Trump said. “But between drug abuse, and, I mean, they say suicide — a lot of different things. Just so you know, there’s no great win one way or the other.”

While many would disagree with Trump’s insinuation that tens of thousands of lives are worth prematurely pretending the worst of the coronavirus is in the rearview mirror, Trump has self-interested motives for downplaying the new models: He faces a tough reelection fight, and the economic message he planned to make a centerpiece of his campaign has been suddenly flipped into a conversation about the possibility of 20 percent unemployment and massive quarterly declines in GDP.

So instead of engaging with the grim public health reality, the White House has instead reportedly relied on a rosier model prepared by controversial White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett that implausibly shows coronavirus deaths plunging to zero by mid-May.

It’s difficult to tell exactly what the White House is basing its Covid-19 policies on at the moment, in part because Trump is preventing House Democrats from asking government public health experts what’s going on. During another part of his Q&A with reporters on Tuesday, he said that he’s blocking the government’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, from testifying to the House of Representatives because “the House is a setup.” (Fauci will testify next week before the Republican-controlled Senate.)

“The House is a bunch of Trump haters,” Trump added. “They, frankly, want our situation to be unsuccessful, which means death.”

He went on to suggest that the US coronavirus response is the envy of the world.

“The whole world is excited, watching us, because we’re leading the world,” Trump said — ignoring that the nearly 70,000 coronavirus deaths the US has experienced to date are well over twice the number endured by the No. 2 country, Italy, which has had just over 29,000.

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