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From “it will disappear” to 100,000 deaths: Trump’s coronavirus projections have shifted dramatically

Trump’s Fox News town hall showed how he keeps revising the death toll forecast upward — even as he pushes for businesses to reopen.

President Trump holds a Virtual Town Hall
Trump speaks with anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum during Fox News’s town hall event inside the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday.
Oliver Contreras-Pool/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s “America Together: Returning to Work” Fox News town hall event was a remarkably dishonest affair, replete with lies about topics ranging from the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine on Covid-19 to the trajectory of new coronavirus cases in the country to how tariffs work. At one point, Trump whined that he’s treated worse than Abraham Lincoln — a president who was assassinated.

But one moment of unusual honesty stood out.

With the US coronavirus death toll approaching 70,000 as of May 4 — a grim milestone significantly beyond the “50 or 60,000” number that Trump said the country was “going toward” on April 20 — Trump revised his estimate upward. And he acknowledged he was doing so.

“I used to say 65,000. Now I’m saying 80 or 90, and it goes up and it goes up rapidly. But it’s still going to be, no matter how you look at it, at the very lower end of the plane if we did the shutdown,” Trump said, alluding to the 100,000-to-200,000 death estimate cited in late March by public health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

While it’s good that Trump is making an effort to level with the American people, 80,000 deaths is an extremely optimistic projection. Sunday saw the fewest single-day coronavirus deaths reported in the country in about a month, but prior to that, the number of daily deaths in the US had plateaued at around 2,000. Even at a reduced rate, the country would likely pass the 80,000-deaths mark this month.

On Monday, the New York Times reported that instead of deaths declining, the Trump administration is actually projecting “a steady rise in the number of cases and deaths from coronavirus over the next several weeks, reaching about 3,000 daily deaths on June 1” — a number significantly higher than the 1,700-2,000 deaths reported per day from Covid-19 over the past week or so.

Deaths can be a lagging indicator, but there’s little reason to believe the trajectory of new cases will bend down anytime soon. As I detailed on Sunday, despite Trump and others pushing for states to reopen businesses, when hardest-hit New York state is taken out of the equation, the national trajectory of new daily coronavirus cases shows an upward trend, and things are likely to get worse as states relax stay-at-home orders and businesses reopen.

It’s this reality that led Trump to say during the town hall, “We’re going to lose anywhere from 75, 80, to 100,000 people. That’s a horrible thing.”

Trump’s new death toll estimate is sobering — and is a stark departure from how he once framed the coronavirus

While’s Trump’s comments on Sunday are more realistic than much of what he’s said about the coronavirus, they represent a dramatic departure from what he was saying during the crucial period of February and early March when the virus was spreading largely undetected, in part because of his government’s failure to quickly devise an effective and widely available coronavirus test.

On February 26, for instance, Trump noted that there were only 15 known cases of Covid-19 in the country and claimed that “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” Two days later, he said, “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” As of May 4, there are more than 1.2 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the country, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker.

As recently as March 9, Trump posted a tweet suggesting that the measures taken by state governments to shut down economic activity in the hope of slowing the spread of the virus wouldn’t be necessary because tens of thousands of people die from the flu each year (including more than 30,000 in the 2018-19 season), yet with the flu, “[n]othing is shut down, life & the economy go on.”

During a press conference four days later, Trump compared his government’s handling of the coronavirus favorably with that of the Obama administration’s response to H1N1. “Interestingly, if you go back — please — if you go back to the swine flu, it was nothing like this,” he said. “They didn’t do testing like this. And actually, they lost approximately 14,000 people. And they didn’t do the testing. They started thinking about testing when it was far too late.”

Trump’s claim about the number of Americans who died from H1N1 in 2009 and 2010 is false. A CDC study conducted years after the fact found that about 12,500 died. And ProPublica recently detailed how the Obama administration presided over the CDC’s development of an H1N1 test that became available for use just two weeks after the first case was detected.

Trump, by contrast, oversaw a botched CDC test-development process that put the US behind the curve when it comes to detecting the spread of the coronavirus. He’s absurdly tried in recent weeks to pin blame for these testing failures on Obama.

Trump has doubled the projected death toll over two weeks

While the death toll goalposts have shifted dramatically since the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, they’ve moved noticeably in recent weeks as well. Since early April, when the numbers of per-day US coronavirus deaths began to exceed 1,000, Trump has gradually ramped up the projected death toll numbers.

On April 17, Trump said he expected “around 60,000, maybe 65,000” American deaths from the coronavirus. Ten days later, he cited 70,000 as a top-end projection. Last Friday, Trump moved the goalposts by saying “hopefully we are going to come in below that 100,000 lives lost.”

On Sunday, Trump revised that number yet again. Praising his own government’s response, he said, “That’s one of the reasons we’re successful, if you call losing 80 or 90,000 people successful.”

This changing perspective of what counts as successful — despite “success” entailing a massive loss of life — suggests the president would be willing to proclaim a number even greater than 100,000 a success, since such a figure would be “at the very lower end” of the 100,000-to-200,000 range identified in March by Fauci.

Trump also claimed he’s responded well because he’s saved “hundreds of thousands of lives.” But his baseline for this claim is a death projection based on a scenario in which he literally did nothing to slow the spread of coronavirus. In that scenario, experts estimated as many as 2.2 million Americans would die.

As Trump was declaring victory and congratulating himself, during an appearance on the latest Fox News Sunday, Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force, gave a different assessment of the deaths to come, one that contradicted the president. She claimed that “our projections have always been between 100,000 and 240,000” deaths.

As recently as last Friday, however, Trump was expressing hope that the American death toll would come in under that number. And hopefully it does. But as the administration continues to struggle in its response, the goalposts continue to move.

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