White House debated: Should we declare 200 per day an acceptable number of COVID deaths?

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

What a goofy idea. So goofy that even an outfit with poor political instincts like Team Biden ended up deciding against it.

Still, how did a proposal this bad reach the “internal debate” stage? The backfire potential is off the charts.


I think it’s easily explained. They’re desperate for good news as inflation and the magnitude of the GOP’s midterm wave both continue to rise, and they do have some good news to tout with respect to COVID. What they need is an eye-catching gimmick to show it off. Like an … “acceptable casualties” metric for the the virus, perhaps?

We do it for the flu when we say that a season is “bad” relative to the expected number of deaths. Why not for the ‘rona?

Biden officials in recent months privately discussed how many daily Covid-19 deaths it would take to declare the virus tamed, three people familiar with the conversations told POLITICO…

“Five hundred a day is a lot. You still have 9/11 numbers in a week,” the person said. “People generally felt like 100 [a day] or less, or maybe 200, would be OK.”…

“When you spread 100 to 200 [deaths] around the country, then it’s minimal around your [geographic] area,” the person said…

Cyrus Shahpar, the White House’s pandemic data director, told POLITICO that pinpointing a number “doesn’t make sense from a public health perspective because it’s also about how long you’re able to maintain low numbers or low severity of illness,” and the virus can evolve quickly.

Setting a magic number on deaths “never passed the hurdles to be a formal metric,” one official said. And no wonder. How bad is this idea? Let us count the ways:


1. Plain and simple from one of Politico’s sources: “They don’t want to say that it’s tolerable for 200 Americans a day to die.” Shahpar agreed, adding, “I don’t really know why 200 would be a number that would be magically OK.” Biden got elected promising to shut down the virus. Imagine him now turning around and saying that 200 people per day dying — or 73,000 per year — is close enough.

2. The target number of 200 per day is a strange one to pick considering the United States hasn’t averaged under 200 per day since March 26, 2020. Even during last year’s abbreviated hot vax summer, the daily average never dropped below 228. We’re approaching that number now but are currently stuck at 269. It’s weird to set a benchmark for your administration to claim that the virus is “tamed” and make it a number that hasn’t actually been attained and might be unattainable consistently. Plus, even if we can get deaths below 200 per day for awhile, as soon as there’s an uptick the GOP will be teed up to claim that Biden has once again lost control of the virus.

3. We’ve lived with COVID long enough now to know that it’s seasonal. Cases in Texas have doubled over the past three weeks, on track with the summer wave that hit the south in 2020 and 2021. Deborah Birx is expecting an “exponential” surge in Florida over the next few months. Many more cases in major states like those will certainly bring extra deaths, which makes it highly likely that we’ll be north of 200 daily deaths again soon (assuming we’re ever south of it). And it’s a cinch that we’ll top that number in the winter, which has brought the worst surges of COVID since the virus arrived here in early 2020. If the White House adopted a “200 per day” threshold they’d be setting themselves up for long-term failure.


4. The virus continues to evolve quickly, with the super-contagious BA.2.12.1 Omicron subvariant already being outcompeted by the ultra-super-contagious BA.4 and BA.5 mutations in states like Florida. It’s anyone’s guess whether we’ll soon see a new subvariant that’s mega-ultra-super-contagious and/or a bit deadlier than the current Omicron family. That being so, why would the White House want to set a benchmark that might soon prove not just unrealistic but wildly unrealistic?

Still, I get why they’re hunting for ways to show off the recent death toll. By one metric, we’re probably at the most encouraging stage of the entire pandemic right now. Have a look at the death curve over time:

We’re doing about as well at the present as we did during last summer’s fleeting post-vax respite from the pandemic, right before Delta arrived and made everything terrible again. But while the daily death figures may be similar, the daily case totals are not. Last July, when deaths were bottoming out, cases had also bottomed out at around 10,000 to 20,000 per day. Not so right now: We’re holding down a death toll of 250-300 despite seeing around 100,000 cases a day. And that 100,000 is certainly a massive undercount given that rapid tests are available now to a degree they weren’t last summer, which means many people who would have gone for a lab test in 2021 and had their infection confirmed are sticking with at-home tests in 2022 that don’t get recorded anywhere. The result, according to one estimate, is that the U.S. might have 30 times more cases in reality at the moment than are showing up in the data.


Which, if true, means that the fatality rate for COVID has shrunk dramatically. If you assume that infections last summer were being undercounted by a factor of five, it would mean there were around 250 deaths each day when there were 100,000 daily infections. If we’re currently undercounting by a factor of 30, it means there are 250 deaths each day when there are three million infections. Thanks to the vaccines, widespread natural immunity, and maybe a less virulent variant in the form of Omicron, COVID is vastly less deadly than it used to be.

That would be a better message for the White House than “X number of deaths is acceptable” but you know why they’re reluctant to push that message too. If they say the virus is less deadly, older people will treat it as an excuse not to get boosted. And that would risk sending daily deaths skyward. I’ll leave you with this.

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