Acosta had asked a White House official why there was apparently no effort to implement social distancing measures for the audience at the speech. The official’s response?
“Everybody is going to catch this thing eventually,” the official reportedly said.
It’s a staggering comment, for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is that everyone won’t catch the novel coronavirus eventually, ideally; the point of developing a vaccine is to keep that from happening. What’s more, even if there were no vaccine, there’s a big difference between people catching it now and catching it in a year or two when there might be better therapeutic treatments or potentially a cure. It’s like shrugging at people getting infections before the invention of penicillin.
But this was also one comment from one official, and it was not something that we could simply ascribe to the administration overall as a deliberate strategy.
Until Monday morning, when The Washington Post reported that something along these lines is gaining acceptance among White House leadership.
“One of President Trump’s top medical advisers is urging the White House to embrace a controversial ‘herd immunity’ strategy to combat the pandemic, which would entail allowing the coronavirus to spread through most of the population to quickly build resistance to the virus, while taking steps to protect those in nursing homes and other vulnerable populations, according to five people familiar with the discussions,” The Post’s Yasmeen Abutaleb and Josh Dawsey report. “The administration has already begun to implement some policies along these lines, according to current and former officials as well as experts, particularly with regard to testing.”
Last week, new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scaled back the number of tests being completed for the virus, forgoing testing for those who weren’t displaying symptoms but had been in contact with someone infected with the virus. One effect of this would be a political benefit for Trump, reducing the number of recorded coronavirus cases. Another effect would be to increase the transmission of the virus, as asymptomatic people can still infect others if not quarantined.
Trump has for some time insisted that the government’s time is best spent protecting those in nursing homes and who are otherwise at risk, an approach to the pandemic that allows for more economic activity and — Trump again clearly hopes — fewer negative consequences for his reelection bid.
He’s also repeatedly downplayed the risks associated with contracting the virus. At times, he’s insisted that 99 percent of infections are “totally harmless,” a claim that both misrepresents the deadliness of the virus and ignores the body of evidence showing that some infections yield long-term health effects and potentially permanent damage.
Over the weekend, he sought to bolster the idea that the virus isn’t really as deadly as experts say by retweeting a QAnon supporter’s claim that a CDC report showed that 94 percent of those identified as dying from covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, had other conditions at the time of their deaths. What the report actually showed was that in most cases, covid-19 killed people who were living with other conditions.
It’s obvious that covid-19 is killing Americans when we consider the number of people who’ve died relative to prior years. Through the middle of May, data from the New York Times showed 88,000 more deaths in 2020 than in the average number of deaths seen from 2014 to 2019. A report earlier this month estimated that about 200,000 more people had died so far this year than would have been expected from prior years.
In other words, Trump’s halfhearted assurances notwithstanding, a shift in the White House’s strategy to allow for more widespread infections would likely mean tens or hundreds of thousands more deaths than would be seen with containment measures.
Precisely how many isn’t clear. At this point, the country has been averaging more than 900 deaths per day for more than a month. The number of new cases is hovering at about 41,000 per day, on average. And since early July, the percentage of deaths relative to new cases two weeks prior has been between about 1.5 percent and 1.8 percent.
One projection of the death toll from the virus figures that the country will add another 90,000 deaths by Election Day. That assumes a reduction in efforts to contain the virus — which is reportedly what the White House is embracing.
Trump understood the risks of letting the virus spread without containment back in April, when he was defending the administration’s decision to endorse a shutdown of economic activity. At a news briefing centered on the virus, Trump was asked about Sweden’s decision to embrace a “herd immunity” approach to it, allowing it to spread widely enough that there would be enough people with immunity to slow the spread.
“I think we could have followed that approach,” Trump said of Sweden’s strategy. “And if we did follow that approach, I think we might have 2 million people dead.”
That figure comes from an estimate developed by Imperial College London. When the White House first announced its support of containment measures, it used an upper-end estimate of 2.2 million deaths to describe what could happen if Americans didn’t try to contain the virus’s spread.
“Sweden,” Trump added, “is suffering greatly.”
In July, the Times described the country as the world’s “cautionary tale,” having tried to both continue operating as normal but allowing the virus to spread. The result was a much higher death toll as a function of population than its Scandinavian neighbors without significantly better economic results.
So what changed since April? At the time, there had been only about 21,500 deaths in the country, and the pandemic was seen as an emerging risk. Now, nearly 180,000 people have died, and a steady daily death toll of more than 900 people has become background noise in the national conversation.
It’s an example of the saying often incorrectly first attributed to Joseph Stalin, that one death is a tragedy and a million a statistic. In this case, Trump would much rather focus on one death during violent encounters in Portland, Ore., or Kenosha, Wis., than the 12 daily coronavirus deaths that are happening in those states.
One he thinks helps him politically. The other he knows doesn’t. So if everyone catches this thing, so be it.