‘They’re Adding’: Trump Sows Doubt About Untested COVID-19 Deaths That Threaten His Narrative

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April 16, 2020 5:11 p.m.
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This piece is part of our weekly Prime series on corruption and the Trump Swamp, but it has been moved outside of the paywall while we cover COVID-19.

The Maria-fication of the coronavirus pandemic’s death toll has begun.

After Hurricane Maria collided with Puerto Rico in 2017, President Donald Trump simply could not acknowledge that thousands of people — not a couple dozen — had died as a result of the massive and powerful storm.

At the time, Trump said studies showing the massive death toll were pushed by Democrats to make him look bad. And then, as now, Trump insisted that he, in fact, had done a great job — “an incredible unsung success.”

And yesterday, responding to the news that New York had begun releasing numbers on “probable” COVID-19 deaths, Trump planted the same seeds of doubt. According to the new data, nearly 3,800 people died of a suspected coronavirus cases, but the deaths were never confirmed with a test for the disease.

“New York added 3,000 deaths because they died and they’re now saying, rather than ‘It was a heart attack,’ they’re saying ‘It was a heart attack caused by this,'” the President said at a press briefing. “So they’re adding.”

In reality, the city said upon announcing these “probable” COVID-19 deaths Tuesday that they described people who had not been tested as coronavirus carriers, but whose “death certificate lists as a cause of death ‘COVID-19’ or an equivalent.”

There aren’t remotely enough tests to confirm each COVID-19 case in New York City, and less still to test the entire United States. Many, if not most, who die of the disease will do so without any confirmation that they participated in a global pandemic.

Nursing homes in New York City offer a dramatic example: A full 70% of COVID-19 deaths in assisted living facilities and hospices, as recorded by the city, were “probable” rather than “confirmed” with a test. And yet those homes house the populations most vulnerable to the virus: The elderly, infirm and immunocompromised, living in a communal setting.

Even the “probable” cases appear to be undercounting the death toll: Based on monthly morbidity averages in years past, there have likely been upwards of 13,000 COVID-19 deaths in New York City.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), asked about Trump’s remark in a news conference Thursday, said they were “more bizarre than usual,” then accurately pointed out that death statistics as recorded in the middle of the pandemic were just a “rough estimate.” His secretary Melissa DeRosa pointed out that New York City had followed CDC guidelines in keeping records of probable COVID-19 deaths.

“It’s the President’s own CDC that put out this guidance,” DeRosa said.

Trump has expressed publicly that he views COVID-19 data, like the stock market, as a ticker of his own success.

In early March, for example, he expressed a wariness of allowing the virus-stricken Grand Princess cruise ship to dock in California because “I like the numbers being where they are.”

Similarly, when government calculations projected that 60,000 people could die as a result of the pandemic — a downward estimate from an earlier 100,000-200,000 range — Trump sounded triumphant that more people were expected to die than those currently engraved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in D.C.

“You can never be happy,” he said of the figure, “but that’s a lot fewer than we were originally told and thinking.”

Here’s what else we were watching this week:

Key Coronavirus Crisis Links

TPM’s COVID-19 hub.
Josh Marshall’s Twitter List of Trusted Experts (Epidemiologists, Researchers, Clinicians, Journalists, Government Agencies) providing reliable real-time information on the COVID-19 Crisis.
COVID-19 Tracking Project (updated data on testing and infections in the U.S.).
Johns Hopkins Global COVID-19 Survey (most up to date numbers globally and for countries around the world).
Worldometers.info (extensive source of information and data visualizations on COVID-19 Crisis — discussion of data here).
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