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Is Trump Playing Games with His Death Toll Projections?

What would it look like to have 100,000 to 240,000 Americans dead in the next few months?
April 3, 2020
Is Trump Playing Games with His Death Toll Projections?
(Digital collage by Hannah Yoest / photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

1. Death Tolls

Last night the Washington Post had a piece questioning where Trump’s new death toll estimates—that between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans will die—comes from.

Here’s the bit that bothered me most:

Leading disease forecasters, whose research the White House used to conclude 100,000 to 240,000 people will die nationwide from the coronavirus, were mystified when they saw the administration’s projection this week.The experts said they don’t challenge the numbers’ validity but that they don’t know how the White House arrived at them.

White House officials have refused to explain how they generated the figure . . .

Jeffrey Shaman, a Columbia University epidemiologist whose models were cited by the White House, said his own work on the pandemic doesn’t go far enough into the future to make predictions akin to the White House fatality forecast.

“We don’t have a sense of what’s going on in the here and now, and we don’t know what people will do in the future,” he said. “We don’t know if the virus is seasonal, as well.” . . .

Other experts noted that the White House didn’t even explain the time period the death estimate supposedly captures — just the coming few months, or the year-plus it will take to deploy a vaccine.

That last part is the most troubling. If I was going to be cynical, I might guess that Trump is rolling out a figure that’s either inflated, or that extends to a far time horizon, just in order to be able to claim victory come November if “only,” say, 50,000 Americans have died.

On the other hand, maybe it’s totally plausible.

We are now over 6,000 total deaths in America. That’s the official number, it’s entirely possible that this number will grow once we get to the after-action period when people can study death certificates and see if there was undercounting due to the lack of available testing.

Let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that the bulk of the crisis is over by July 1. To be very clear: I’m not assuming it will be over by then, but we’re just picking a medium-term date for the purposes of this exercise. That’s 88 days away.

To get to the midway point of Trump’s projected range—160,000 deaths—would mean that we average 1,750 deaths a day from now until then. Keep in mind that, because of the way distribution curves work, this would mean that the daily deaths are approaching zero by the end of June. Which means that the peak daily numbers would have to be very, very high. Probably in the five-digits.

If you assume that Trump’s projection is supposed to be the total by November 1, the peak will be much lower—but it still means averaging 726 deaths a day from now until then.

All of which is to say that there are three possibilities with the 100,000 to 240,000 dead projection:

(1) It’s a total projection pretty far out into the future—say, a year from now.

(2) It’s a fiction designed to allow Trump to claim victory in November.

(3) Things are going to get very, very bad in the near future. So much worse than they are now, even, that we can’t really imagine it.

2. Three Depressing Data Points

(1) New York City EMTs are being told not to bring cardiac arrest cases to the ER if the patient can’t be revived in the field.

This is just the first part of something we talked about weeks ago: The non-COVID-19 deaths that will be attributable in some (or large) part to the strain COVID-19 puts on the healthcare system. I’m not even sure how you tabulate these sorts of deaths. And there will be others.

There will be people who don’t feel right, but don’t go to the doctor—and so they miss catching some disease (or cancer) early in its pathology. There will be scheduled medical procedures that can’t go forward. And even once the virus recedes, the nature of having the entire system stressed for so long will mean that some patients won’t get optimum care.

(2) So it turns out that the USS Comfort was just a photo op for the president. This is the type of thing that makes me wonder about his death toll projections.

(3) President Trump pardons war criminals. But he makes sure that the captain of the USS Roosevelt gets relieved of command because he made Trump look bad in the course of trying to protect his crew.

Maybe there’s more to this story that we don’t know about. But I would say that it’s worth comparing the reactions of Eddie Gallagher’s comrades—who were sickened by his pardon—to the reaction of Captain Brett Crozier’s crew.

3. Wrestlemania

This weekend marks the first Wrestlemania that is being done not only without an audience, but not done live. All of which makes me especially sad for Edge, who is making what should have been a triumphant return to the biggest event in sports entertainment:

Edge always describes the tag wars of his wrestling youth as being like car crashes. He was lucky to survive. But eventually, you have to pay the price for everything. Every bump, every bruise, every fall off a 10-foot ladder to the floor takes a toll, and the effect is cumulative. Injuries add up, each one making the endless grind and travel schedule that much harder until a wrestler’s body simply says “no more.”

And so Edge found himself in the middle of the ring at Monday Night Raw on April 11, 2011, announcing his retirement from the thing he loved most. After neck surgery, he found himself unable to feel his hands, numbness there perhaps making up for the near-constant ache in his head. Cervical spinal stenosis was the diagnosis, and leaving the ring for good was the only viable solution.

“It wasn’t really walking away,” Edge says. “I feel like it was ripped away. So there was some adjustment, without a doubt. But I also realized that I’d better come to terms and come to grips with it, because I’m told I have no choice. When you’re told you have no choice, it somehow makes it easier because you don’t have to go, ‘Oh, can I still get more out of this?’ No, it’s taken out of your hands.”

Not one to dwell, Edge almost immediately landed a reoccurring role on the Syfy series Haven and found a new passion he could sink his teeth into in acting. He had a second neck surgery in 2012 that relieved many of the issues he’d been having. The couple had their first child, Lyric Rose (sister Ruby followed three years later), and life moved on.

Read the whole thing.


Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.