There remains no reason to trust Trump’s rhetoric about the coronavirus pandemic

On Feb. 24 and 25, the New York Times reported Wednesday, senior aides to Trump told the conservative Hoover Institution that the virus posed a significant threat to the economy. After a memo documenting the warning was circulated, at least one investor shifted his position to bet against the economy.

This difference between what Trump was saying out loud and what he was saying quietly was itself captured in a conversation with Woodward.

“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump said on March 19. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

With less than three weeks until the end of the 2020 presidential race, Trump continues to argue that the pandemic is not as bad as it actually is. On at least 12 days since the beginning of September, he’s explicitly stated that the country is “rounding the corner” on the virus — even as the number of confirmed cases is again heading back upward.

We are now at the front end of the pandemic’s third wave in the United States, having never actually seen cases recede after the first wave. To some extent, this is a function of expanded testing. But the underlying data make clear that the same pattern we’ve seen twice before — new cases, new hospitalizations, new deaths — is poised to repeat itself.

Notice the plunge in the markets shortly after Feb. 24.

The three surges in new cases the United States has experienced have each looked a bit different.

Surge 1: Beginning to April 10. The country added about 500,000 confirmed cases, but the true scale of the first surge will likely never be known. Analysis from covid19-projections.com puts the total closer to 10 million. (Due to that uncertainty, we didn’t highlight the first surge on the graphs above.)

The areas hardest hit as a function of population were Connecticut, D.C., Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. They constituted 20.6 percent of all new cases during that period.

Surge 2: June 11 to July 25. The country added 2.1 million new confirmed cases. The states which saw the biggest increases as a function of population were Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. Combined, 15.7 percent of new cases were in those states.

Surge 3: Sept. 12 to now. So far, we’ve added 1.4 million new confirmed cases. The areas which have seen the most cases as a function of population have been Connecticut, D.C., Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island and South Dakota. Those places have contributed 20.9 percent of the cases in this surge.

“We have triple the amount of testing that we are doing in the state of South Dakota, which is why we’re seeing elevated positive cases,” Noem said. “That’s normal, that’s natural, that’s expected.”

This is the old Trump argument: Case totals are only rising because we’re testing more.

It’s true that the number of daily tests has increased over the past few weeks, according to data compiled by the COVID Tracking Project. But it’s also true that the rate of positives being returned from those tests is increasing, as happened in the prior two surges. Over the past two weeks, the rate of positive tests has risen from 4.6 to 5.1 percent. In the first two weeks of the second surge, it rose from 4.3 to 5.8 percent, eventually hitting 8.4 percent.

What Noem’s rationalization doesn’t explain, though, is the increased number of hospitalizations. During the second surge, we saw that hospitalizations continued to rise after the peak in new case confirmations was reached, a function of people contracting the virus and then, later, falling seriously ill. You can see that effect on the graphs above: the highest point of new hospitalizations occurred after the second surge ended.

That, then, translates to the number of deaths. The grim pattern is obvious. People catch the virus, take a turn for the worse and, in extreme cases, die. Time elapses between those three benchmarks, often several weeks.

Over the course of the past three months, the relationship between new cases and deaths has been fairly consistent. About two weeks after new cases are reported, we see new deaths that equate to between 1.5 and about 2.1 percent of the total. (Because some states have at times belatedly reported previous deaths, there are blips in both the data and the graphs above which don’t accurately reflect the trend. The ratio between new cases and deaths two weeks later has topped 3 percent in the past month, but only because of one such belated addition of death data.) In other words, given the 51,000 new daily cases being added on average at the moment, we should expect to see between 770 and 1,080 deaths each day by the end of the month.

This is particularly problematic for Trump’s campaign rhetoric. By Oct. 29, less than a week before the campaign ends, we’ll still be seeing hundreds or even 1,000 new deaths from the coronavirus each day. The president hopes the country will put the pandemic behind it in the same way that he appears to have done with his own infection, but the new surge in cases makes that unlikely.

Yes, he can argue that this surge seems bigger because it includes cases captured by expanded testing. But new cases inexorably lead to more deaths. The number of deaths the country has seen each day on average hasn’t been below 500 since early July, growth that’s independent of the rise in new tests.

The corner, in other words, is not being rounded. But, then, we should all have learned by now not to take Trump’s claims about the pandemic at face value.

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