The Washington Post published an analysis piece by Philip Bump today which attempts to dunk on President Trump for his embrace of a coronavirus death toll that the U.S. will likely surpass next month. The piece is headlined, “Misunderstanding the math, Trump embraced a coronavirus death toll we’ll soon surpass.” The headline, like the story itself, is misleading. I’ll go into the details in a moment but the bottom line is that Bump is straining to create a gotcha moment where none exists.
When the White House announced its recommendation last month that Americans refrain from meeting in groups and take other steps to contain the spread of the coronavirus, it presented a chart suggesting that doing so could avoid the worst-case scenario of infections. Without mitigation efforts, models of the spread of the disease estimated that as many as 2.2 million Americans could die of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. With mitigation? A more modest 100,000 to 220,000 deaths. Still a lot, but obviously far better.
It was a hard message for President Trump, for a variety of reasons. No president wants to tell the public that the best-case scenario from a crisis is that hundreds of thousands of people would die. But that’s what the data showed, and so that’s what was presented in defense of urging people to stay home.
As time passed, the models were revised with new information. One leading model used by the White House, created by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, used new information about distancing measures in Europe and the United States to shift its downward estimate for the death toll from 90,000 to a little over 60,000.
Trump relished the change.
That last line is the gotcha. Trump “relished” the idea that thousands fewer Americans might not die from the virus. The absolute bastard. If you think I’m exaggerating, read the whole piece for yourself. Here’s his conclusion:
For Trump, the question was simple. The lower estimate said 100,000, and here was a model suddenly throwing out a figure of 60,000. Trump, in Trump fashion, embraced it, even slicing off a few thousand now and again.
I’m struggling to imagine the kind of person that would not want to embrace this lower figure coming, not from some internet rando but from a credible model of the infection the White House had been following. But even so, it’s really only a mistake if Trump embraced the new figures in a way that was obviously over the top and irresponsible. Did he do that? Here’s what Trump actually said according to Bump:
With 60,000 deaths, “you can never be happy,” Trump said at a briefing on April 10, shortly after the model revision. “But that’s a lot fewer than we were originally told and thinking. So they said between [100,000] and 220,000 lives on the minimum side, and then up to 2.2 million lives if we didn’t do anything. But it showed a just tremendous resolve by the people of this country. So we’ll see what it ends up being, but it looks like we’re headed to a number substantially below the 100,000. That would be the low mark. And I hope that bears out.”
“We did the right thing,” he said a bit later, “because maybe it would have been 2 million people died instead of whatever that final number will be, which could be 60, could be 70, could be 75, could be 55. Thousands of people have died.”
First, Trump did not commit to the number 60,000. He specifically said it could be somewhere between 55,000 and 75,000. Second, he’s clearly not stating a fact. He’s saying that thanks to social distancing efforts “it looks like” the number will be “substantially” below 100,000. He added, “I hope that bears out.” He’s not guaranteeing anything. He’s literally expressing a hope of good results stemming from good behavior.
More recently Trump suggested the number could be between 50,000 and 60,000. So what is the actual number going to be? Well, we don’t know but here’s how Bump describes two models trying to estimate the number:
Models of the possible death toll, including IHME’s, have the country passing 60,000 deaths in the first week in May. A model created by a number of university and nongovernmental groups called the Gleam Project suggests that by May 7, there will be more than 62,000 deaths. On that day, IHME’s number is closer to 64,000.
If you click over and look at the models he’s talking about, they show a clear plateau. Here’s the graph from the IHME model:
Notice that dotted line which shows the current best guess of where the death toll will be by the end of summer: 67,641 deaths. That’s beyond 60,000 obviously but not that far off. There are some huge uncertainty bars around that figure. It could be as low as 48,000 or as high as 104,000. But my point is that the current modeling suggests we will could get through this first wave with a figure that is still substantially below 100,000 deaths. The other model Bump links to only offers future projections out to May 14. On that date they also predict about 67,000 deaths in the U.S.
Finally, Bump points out that these models only deal with the first wave of the virus: “In other words, even when people were celebrating its downward revision to 60,000 deaths, that was still only the estimated total through the early summer.” Okay, fair enough. But the lower numbers are still something to celebrate now! We may have five more rounds of this to come, but it’s still good that the death toll of this one looks better than we thought.
What really bothers me about Bump trying to turn this into a partisan gotcha moment is that he clearly knows better because he embraced the same data himself. Just last Tuesday he wrote about the declining estimates of the IHME model and how the change was good news.
By now, there were supposed to have been more than 1,000 people dead in Alabama…
Happily, that estimate was wrong…
Modeling, as White House coronavirus task force member Anthony S. Fauci would remind us, is a forward-looking estimate. It is an educated guess, based on the available data, used to make decisions about resource allocation and strategies. As data come in, the model should and will change.
As the IHME model did.
There was nothing in that piece last week about the 2nd round of the virus this winter. In fact, the last line in that piece is “Hopefully, the general trend will continue to be downward.” You could say that when the IHME revised its death toll downward, Philip Bump embraced it and expressed hope the trend would continue. But a week later he’s trying to dunk on Trump for doing exactly the same thing. Why would he do that?