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Why Trump may regret emphasizing the virus death toll

As part of an effort to focus on "encouraging signs," Trump is emphasizing the coronavirus death toll. Whether he realizes it or not, that's a risky move.
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

In recent months, Donald Trump has moved the goalposts on his projected coronavirus death toll seven times, but in each instance, he's moved them in the same direction: forward.

A couple of months ago, the president said he believed the overall American death toll from the pandemic would be between 50,000 and 60,000 people. When totals climbed, he said the total could reach 70,000 people. Then 80,000 or 90,000. And so on.

This week, however, Trump made the curious decision to move the goalposts backwards, telling a Fox affiliate in Arizona, "We're going to be at 115,000." Whether the president was aware of this or not, the number of Americans who've succumbed to COVID-19 is well over 120,000 -- and was above 115,000 when he made the comments on Tuesday.

Nevertheless, the focus on the death toll appears to be part of a deliberate strategy. Vice President Mike Pence, ostensibly the head of the White House Coronavirus Taskforce, told Republicans this week to focus on "encouraging signs," and Trump has apparently taken the advice, choosing to emphasize the latest fatality numbers.

"Coronavirus deaths are way down," the president boasted on Twitter last night. He added during his 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 have pushed the same line.

As a political matter, I can appreciate the thinking behind the strategy: as infection rates reach new heights, Team Trump is looking for a trend line that isn't discouraging. As the number of daily fatalities drops, it's an appealing metric.

But it's also a risky one. As a Washington Post analysis noted, "The death toll we are seeing now -- which is still hundreds every day -- is mostly reflecting those who got sick a few weeks ago. Health experts, including top infectious-disease specialist Anthony S. Fauci, warn that the death toll could rise considerably in July, commensurate with case increases, once those who are sick today start to deteriorate."

Politico had a good piece on this, too.

Death rates tell nothing about the current spread of the virus and only offer a snapshot of where the country was roughly three weeks ago. If the caseloads in states like Texas, Arizona and Florida are any indication, the U.S. will almost certainly see a spike in deaths in July that could undermine the entire nationwide reopening effort.

The article quoted 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."

Obviously, we can all hope the current trend line continues to fall. But if the experts' concerns prove prescient, and the death rate starts to climb again, what other metrics will Team Trump be able to turn to as a way of focusing on "encouraging signs"?