By Trump’s own standard, the coronavirus response will soon have failed to constitute “a very good job.” The death toll has now crested 180,000, and with about 900 people dying per day on average this month, that 200,000 threshold will almost definitely be passed well before Election Day — and possibly even ahead of the first presidential debate in late September.
Trump’s response to this, if this weekend is any indication, will be to question the legitimacy of that death toll. But the conspiracy theory he retweeted is merely the latest specious attempt to inject doubt into people’s minds about just how deadly covid-19 is.
Trump retweeted a QAnon supporter who cited a nugget on the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC says, “For 6% of the deaths, COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned,” which the post suggested meant only 6 percent of the reported coronavirus deaths were actually due to the virus. Trump also retweeted a campaign aide, Jenna Ellis, who linked to a post on the same topic from the conspiracy theory website Gateway Pundit. Both of Trump’s retweets were later deleted.
The first problem with the claim is that its purveyor said “This week the CDC quietly updated” its website to reflect the stat. In fact, the CDC website has included this information since at least May.
The bigger problem, though, is that having other causes of death doesn’t mean you didn’t die of the coronavirus. Those who fill out death certificates are supposed to include other causes, which are often conditions either caused by the virus (like heart failure or pneumonia) or co-morbidities that made the person more susceptible to dying from the virus. Indeed, there is a reason that it’s very rare for only the coronavirus to be listed as the cause of death: Because it causes the things you die from.
But the claim is a lot like its predecessors. That’s both because of the intimation that this data is suddenly being altered to reflect the truth and in its implausible suggestion that scores of people who die with the coronavirus somehow aren’t dying of the coronavirus.
Except the CDC bases its numbers on those death certificates, which its website notes means, “Death counts are delayed and may differ from other published sources” — sometimes lagging by weeks. The CDC elsewhere on its website also featured a death toll that topped 65,000, which echoed the oft-cited numbers that it was supposedly revising downward.
Fox News analyst Brit Hume around the same time also floated the idea that people with preexisting conditions who died after getting the coronavirus didn’t actually die of the virus. The odds of dying so shortly after coming down with the virus but it having played no role in the death are, again, very small. Fox News host Harris Faulkner also floated this theory to a medical expert, who dismissed its significance.
“Those individuals will have an underlying condition, but that underlying condition did not cause their acute death when it’s related to a covid infection,” Birx said. “In fact, it’s the opposite.”
Fauci warned against such “conspiracy theories” about coronavirus data.
And in fact, as has been frequently noted, it’s likely that the death toll is significantly higher than that 180,000 figure — and might already have crested 200,000 weeks ago. That is because the number of excess deaths we’ve seen this year relative to previous years is higher than that.
It’s also worth noting that Trump himself has previously vouched for the accuracy of the data, saying in late April that “we’re reporting very accurately.” He added: “It’s very important to us to do very accurate reporting, and that’s what we’re doing.”
That same president this weekend sought to inject some doubt into the very same reporting he had vouched for as accurate — using a laughable claim that the coronavirus death toll is actually about one-20th of what is being reported. Someone apparently thought better of it, and the tweets were deleted.
But as the number creeps closer to the upper bound of Trump’s benchmark for success — and given his affinity for such conspiracy theories and his media allies’ anxiety to push them — it’s not difficult to see this kind of thing rearing its ugly head again. The election is too close, and that number is a major liability.