Dr. Anthony Fauci, the widely respected director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, went on CNN Sunday morning and, though clearly reluctant to offer a numerical estimate, said in his opinion the United States would likely see 100,000 to 200,000 coronavirus deaths before all is said and done.
As of Sunday afternoon, the United States has about 135,000 cases and more than 2,000 people have died.
Fauci cautioned, “I don’t think that we really need to make a projection,” because of the uncertainty inherent in the forecasting enterprise. But he did concede that “looking at what we’re seeing now, I would say between 100,000 and 200,000 cases — excuse me, deaths — we’re going to have millions of cases.”
Fauci’s comments follow a warning from White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx on NBC’s Meet The Press Sunday morning that “no metro area will be spared” the toll of Covid-19 and that nobody should be complacent and assume this is just a problem for the New York region. Instead, she said we should see the situation in New York as a preview of conditions that are likely to prevail elsewhere in the country in a week or two, just as the crisis in the Lombardy region of Italy previewed the outbreak in New York.
The contrast with messages from President Trump, who started talking about relaxing social distancing measures a few days ago while setting a goal of reopening the country by Easter, is striking.
Trump’s view that “we cannot let the cure be worse than the disease” and emphasis on the need to strike a balance between public health and the economy is very different from Joe Biden’s message on Covid-19 this weekend, which stresses the need to listen to public health experts and tell the public the truth.
It’s worth emphasizing that even among economists, there is very little support for Trump’s view. The University of Chicago’s Booth School routinely polls a panel of distinguished economists for their views on policy issues, and found near-universal assent to the notion that prematurely ending lockdown measures would ultimately be more economically costly than allowing them to proceed.
Economists’ main critique of the policy status quo isn’t that we are doing too much to prioritize public health, it’s that economic policy is not investing enough material resources in expanding the health care system’s capacity.
That economic wisdom seems entirely in line with the priorities of America’s top public health officials.
But the question of how those officials will navigate tensions between the shared priorities of economists and public health experts and the views of the president of the United States and his economic policy brain-trust (which is largely composed of non-economist businessmen) remains open.
Most recently, when confronted on the disconnect between her words and the president’s, Birx just pretended to believe that Trump is “so attentive to the scientific literature and the details and the data,” underscoring the inherent tension between maintaining credibility as a public communicator and being attentive to the president’s taste for flattery.
The facts as conveyed today by Birx and Fauci are, however, extremely sobering and suggest that we’re not even close to putting the darkest phase of the current crisis behind us.