Trump boasts coronavirus mortality rate is ‘85% down’ as US death toll hits 250,000

Outgoing president repeats cherry-picking claim as virus runs rampant across dozens of states

Andy Gregory
Thursday 19 November 2020 14:15 GMT
(Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
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As the US surpassed the woeful milestone of 250,000 coronavirus deaths, Donald Trump has boasted that the mortality rate is “85 per cent down” – a claim contested on several fronts.

The pandemic is showing no sign of slowing down in the world’s worst-hit country, with one million new cases identified in a single week and 19 states reporting record numbers of hospitalisations.

But in a series of early-morning tweets sent after a John Hopkins University tally showed more than a quarter of a million fatalities, the outgoing president claimed: “THE COVID DRUGS NOW AVAILABLE TO MAKE PROPLE [sic] BETTER ARE AMAZING, BUT SELDOM TALKED ABOUT BY THE MEDIA! Mortality rate is 85% down!”

Mr Trump previously made the same claim in early September, when he said during a press conference that “under Operation Warp Speed, we’ve pioneered groundbreaking therapies, reducing the fatality rate 85 percent since April”, similarly adding: “You don’t hear that from the press very often.”

In support of this claim, the White House has previously pointed reporters at North Carolina’s WRAL News to data compiled by Jay Bhattacharya of the Stanford University School of Medicine.

This graph reportedly shows that nearly one in three people diagnosed with Covid-19 in March did not survive, and that this proportion had fallen to five per cent by July – signifying a roughly 85 per cent drop as Mr Trump says.

However, this calculation ignores the key fact that in the early stages of the pandemic, most non-severe cases were going unnoticed due to a lack of testing, which progressed from below 30,000 per day in mid-March, to more than 800,000 by mid-July.

As a result, as testing has ramped up and a larger proportion of infections – from severe to asymptomatic – have been identified, the known mortality rate has dropped significantly.

“Since the denominator of case-fatality is the number of cases detected, the availability of testing and testing practices is a huge driver of the case fatality,” Brooke Nichols, an infectious disease modeller at the Boston University School of Public Health told WRAL in September.

Additionally, while the virus tore through nursing homes at the pandemic’s outset – with a Washington Post analysis finding at least one in four homes had reported at least one case by mid-May.

However, nursing homes have since stepped up protections for their residents, most of whom are deemed vulnerable to Covid-19 because of their advanced age.

And while Mr Trump highlights pharmaceutical gains as the reason for the virus’s reduced mortality rate, medics have also pointed to advancements in non-chemical treatment methods – such as turning patients onto their front to aid the lungs, and some say it is too early to apportion the level of success each individual treatment is having.

Meanwhile, the virus is running rampant across the US as winter approaches, with some states reverting to widespread closures in order to suppress the spread of infection.

New York City has closed its school system, the largest in the country, with more than a million pupils to learn remotely instead. 

Governors across the nation are again reluctantly ordering lockdowns in varying levels, with limits on social gatherings and the closures of restaurants, bars and gyms.

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