As coronavirus fatalities climb, White House pretends otherwise

The White House is effectively arguing, "Sure, death rates are climbing now, but they're not quite as dreadful as they were before."
Image: TOPSHOT-US-HEALTH-VIRUS
A body is moved from a refrigeration truck serving as a temporary morgue to a vehicle at the Brooklyn Hospital Center, in Brooklyn, New York on April 8, 2020.Bryan R. Smith / AFP - Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

About a month ago, as coronavirus infection rates started to soar, Donald Trump decided the number of cases was less important than the number of fatalities.

"Coronavirus deaths are way down," the president boasted on Twitter in late June. He added during a Fox News event, "[W]hat they don't say is there are fewer deaths than there have been -- way, way down." Others at the White House pushed the same line.

Even at the time, there were political risks tied to the talking points. While the claims about the death rate were accurate in late June, it seemed obvious given infection rates that fatalities would soon climb. Politico spoke to William Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard's school of public health, who said, "If you're going to do that with the death rate, you should be prepared to look at the death rate in a month or so. You might not find it so attractive."

You can probably guess where this is going.

The United States on Tuesday recorded more than 1,000 daily deaths from the coronavirus for the first time since May, another grim sign the country is struggling to contain the pandemic six months after it emerged in the U.S. The daily death toll from Covid-19 had been falling steadily for months after peaking at over 2,000 in mid-April, but deaths began trending upward again earlier this month as the virus stormed across the South and Southwest.

In this case, the point isn't to focus on misplaced White House boasts from June. Rather, the larger concern is a misplaced White House boast from yesterday afternoon.

The news about domestic COVID-19 deaths topping 1,000 in 24 hours came late in the day, right around the time Donald Trump appeared in the press briefing room and declared, "Fatalities nationwide have fallen 75 percent since mid-April. It’s a great number." The official White House Twitter account added soon after, "Fatalities have fallen nationwide."

In effect, the president and his aides are trying to put a pleasant-sounding spin on bad news. By focusing on fatality spikes from mid-April, the White House is effectively arguing, "Sure, death rates are climbing now, but they're not quite as dreadful as they were before."

That's a whole lot less reassuring than Team Trump seems to realize.

The Associated Press noted a few days ago, "President Donald Trump appears to be living in an alternate reality when it comes to the COVID-19 threat." And in that alternate reality, the coronavirus fatality rate looks encouraging, despite appearing discouraging to the rest of us.