White House Focuses On Metric Painting Rosier Picture Of Pandemic : NPR

Coronavirus cases are increasing in the US, but President Trump keeps saying that the death rate has been low. Trump’s insistence has implications for public health and politics as the death toll continues to rise.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When the number of coronavirus cases rose again this month, the White House entered another number that paints a rosier picture of the pandemic.

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KAYLEIGH MCENANY: We are seeing the death rate in this country falling. It is a very good thing.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: People don’t talk about it too much, but we have one of the lowest death rates. Some people say we have the lowest death rate – sometimes they say the death rate.

SHAPIRO: President Trump and his press secretary Kayleigh McEnany talk about the death rate, the percentage of people with the virus who end up dying. As NPR’s Tamara Keith reports, focusing on this metric has both public health and policy issues.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: At his first press conference on the coronavirus in almost three months yesterday, President Trump was armed with his favorite measurement of the pandemic and a colorful map.

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TRUMP: Our death rate has continued to fall and is lower than in the European Union and almost everywhere in the world.

KEITH: In an interview on Fox News Sunday With Chris Wallace, Trump asked his staff to bring him the card.

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CHRIS WALLACE: 75,000 cases per day.

TRUMP: Show me the death card.

WALLACE: Well, I don’t have a death card …

TRUMP: Well, the death card is much more important.

WALLACE: But I can tell you that the life table is a thousand cases a day.

KEITH: But this isn’t a metric that public health experts have used because it’s a moving target. The number of cases is increasing rapidly. Deaths are a lagging indicator that was several weeks ago.

TOM INGLESBY: Measuring death rates on any given day is not a reliable way to communicate about this pandemic.

KEITH: Dr. Tom Inglesby is the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. He says by taking a more direct measure – the sheer number of deaths, even adjusted for population size – the US is not doing well compared to other countries around the world.

INGLESBY: What national leaders oblige to tell people is only the direct truth. If we give them the wrong feeling that things will get better when they aren’t, they will make decisions that increase the risk of transmission. And they will also cease to have faith in the information they are given.

KEITH: Focusing on the death rate glosses over other serious problems with the coronavirus, says Dr. David Relman, who specializes in immunology and infectious diseases at Stanford. He says around 20% of people get really sick and potentially have long-term health consequences. Coronavirus weighs heavily on the medical system, and as long as it’s not contained, the virus is holding back the economy as well. From his point of view, talking about the death rate is counterproductive.

DAVID RELMAN: What you do instead, when you pull out a small piece and let it dangle in front of people, is to confuse, distract, and undermine the overall message.

KEITH: The message that people should take this virus seriously and take precautionary measures. For President Trump, the emphasis on the positive may have short-term political benefits, but there are longer-term risks.

MIKE DUHAIME: I think it was a mistake early on to deny seriousness and that it would just go away.

KEITH: Mike DuHaime is a Republican strategist, and he’s giving Trump the honor of coming out yesterday and taking it seriously by telling people to wear masks and avoid the crowds.

DUHAIME: In order for him to be politically successful here, his credibility has to be as strong as possible.

KEITH: And Trump’s credibility hurt that badly. According to the latest Pew poll, only 30% of Americans trust Trump to get the facts about the virus right.

DUHAIME: At the end of the day, he just has to do a good job. I know it sounds simple, but when you’re running for re-election, the most important thing really is to do a good job. And until now people have not seen that he did a good job in what they thought was the greatest challenge of his presidency.

KEITH: DuHaime says people check the numbers every day – the number of new cases in their city and state, the number of hospitalizations, and the number of deaths. The numbers are all readily available and easier to find than the death rate. Tamara Keith, NPR News.

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