“In total,” it concluded, “in an unmitigated epidemic, we would predict approximately 510,000 deaths in [Great Britain] and 2.2 million in the U.S.,” even excluding the number of deaths that would result from hospitals being filled with coronavirus patients.
The key word there is “unmitigated.” That’s what the death toll could have been by midsummer if the country were to do literally nothing: keeping everything open, yes, but also not even isolating sick people. Even had the federal government done nothing, states would nonetheless have acted, as some did in advance of the White House’s eventual embrace of shutdown measures. In other words, it was not the case that 2.2 million deaths was the baseline of what should have been expected.
It’s obvious why it’s useful for Trump to cite that number, of course: the bigger the worst-case outcome, the better the actual outcome looks. By the White House’s own measure, though, the actual outcome has been bleak.
When Trump’s coronavirus task force first called for closing parts of the economy to contain the virus in March, it produced a graph using that figure as the upper limit of what could have happened. A mitigated pandemic, on the other hand, would mean that only 100,000 to 240,000 deaths would occur.
As of writing, at least 222,000 people have died of the virus. The key phrase here is “at least,” but we’ll come back to that.
Shortly after Trump’s 2.2-million claim, former vice president Joe Biden used the confirmed death toll to criticize how the administration had handled the pandemic.
“Two hundred and twenty thousand Americans dead,” Biden said. “If you hear nothing else I say tonight, hear this: anyone who’s responsible for not taking control, in fact, [saying] I take no responsibility initially — anyone who’s responsible for that many deaths should not remain as President of the United States of America.”
This, too, is misleading. Trump can’t be considered accountable for 220,000 American deaths from the coronavirus. At least: not yet.
Assessing the number of people who might have died had the federal government acted differently is tricky for three reasons. First, the actual number of deaths so far is a bit murky. Second, the number of deaths the country might have seen involves a fair amount of speculation. And, third, people are still dying at the rate of 1,000 a day, meaning that we’re nowhere near knowing what the final toll from the virus will be.
As noted above, there are at least 222,000 confirmed deaths to date. Many of those came at the outset of the pandemic, when undetected infections spread from person-to-person before containment measures were implemented.
Because of how the virus works — infections are identified a week or two before patients succumb — surges in new cases have preceded surges in deaths. You can see that in the recent data: cases began to increase at the end of last month; deaths began to increase over the past week.
What isn’t captured is any