WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump likes to talk about the most, the best, the thing that nobody has ever seen.
Now he is trying to make a virtue of a lower number, arguing that the efforts of his administration have warded off a far greater death toll than otherwise would have been seen.
But the reported U.S. death toll on Wednesday crept past 60,000, a figure that Trump in recent weeks had suggested might be the total death count. He had cited the estimate as a sign of relative success after the White House previously warned the U.S. could suffer 100,000 to 240,000 deaths.
Trump also has repeatedly used the outer band of any estimate — the potential that 2.2 million Americans could have died had there been no interventions — to try to make his case most powerfully.
The U.S. death toll from COVID-19 is certain to keep growing from here.
And, like the unemployment rate, the numbers also will be revised — and likely upward, due to underreporting. The focus on death tallies also overlooks other important markers such as immunity levels and infection rates.
“All these pieces of data are like a giant jigsaw puzzle that you’re putting together,” said Dr. Howard Markel, director of the University of Michigan’s Center for the History of Medicine. “The death toll is just one of them.”
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said it’s simplistic for Trump or other public officials to focus on the death toll since it’s incomplete. Cases not initially classified as COVID-19 could be added at a later date.
“The problem is you look at the number on your television screen and the number looks real,” she said. “What you don’t have is that that number should have an asterisk next to it.”
Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, on March 29 revealed models projecting the deaths of 100,00-240,000 Americans, assuming social distancing efforts were ongoing. At the same time, she said epidemiology models initially had predicted a worst-case scenario of 1.5 million to 2.2 million U.S. deaths without mitigation efforts such as social distancing, hand washing and staying home as much as possible.
Soon after, Trump began speculating that the 100,000 figure was an outer limit,. Later, he leaned more toward a 60,000 projection.
“The minimum number was 100,000 lives, and I think we’ll be substantially under that number,” he said April 10. “Hard to believe that if you had 60,000 — you could never be happy, but that’s a lot fewer than we were originally told and thinking.”