But listen to victory cries of President Donald Trump and conservative media and you might not realize it.
“We have the lowest Mortality Rate in the World,” Trump proclaimed on Twitter Tuesday, falsely.
“COVID-19 (China Virus) Death Rate PLUNGES From Peak In U.S.” A Tenfold Decrease In Mortality. The Washington Times @WashTimes Valerie Richardson. We have the lowest Mortality Rate in the World. The Fake News should be reporting these most important of facts, but they don’t!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 7, 2020
That was a more extreme claim than just a day earlier, when the President tweeted that the U.S. COVID-19 mortality rate was “just about” the lowest in the world.
It’s pretty straightforward to compare COVID-19 mortality rates, and the United States isn’t close to the lowest in the world: Even accounting for our large population, we’ve done poorly.
According to Johns Hopkins University, nearly 40 Americans have died of COVID-19 per 100,000 people, second worst in the world behind only the United Kingdom. And of all confirmed COVID-19 cases, the United States’ case fatality ratio is 4.4%, ranking seventh worst out of the 20 countries most affected by the virus, the university’s analysis found.
Well, maybe Trump was just talking about recent COVID-19-related deaths — which would paint a much better picture than overall deaths. Out of those known to have the virus, a smaller proportion have died in recent weeks than overall.
But still, even by that metric, he’s wrong.
As the Washington Post’s Philip Bump noted Tuesday morning, at least 29 countries recorded fewer deaths as a percentage of total cases over the prior two weeks than the United States did.
Bump noted a bitter irony: Had the United States’ testing capacity been better at the start of the pandemic, our overall case fatality ratio would likely be lower — though still, nothing to celebrate.
The White House didn’t respond to TPM’s request to provide some clarity regarding what mortality figure Trump was citing. But he’s wrong pretty much however you cut it.
Daily Deaths Have Declined — But We’re Not Out Of The Woods
It’s certainly true that the case fatality ratio has gotten better with time, likely due to a combination of factors.
For one thing, increased testing capacity means we’re now including many more people in our count of people sick with COVID-19, including so-called “asymptomatic” people and otherwise mild cases who have a very low risk of death. Also, as states have “reopened” their economies, younger people who are less likely to die of the virus have made up a larger share of newly confirmed cases.
Treatment has also advanced with time, as has the capacity of emergency rooms and available PPE supplies.
New York Times data from late March through June shows the case fatality ratio in the United States as a gently downward-sloping hill: That’s good news!
Still, the White House and conservative pundits are spinning an overly optimistic version of this story — especially as the virus spikes in several states.
Take the article Trump appeared to cite in his tweet about the false mortality statistic on Tuesday, “Coronavirus death rate keeps dropping even as alarm grows over summer surge,” by the Washington Times’ Valerie Richardson.
Richardson noted what several others have about the death toll: According to a recent CDC update, “Mortality attributed to COVID-19 decreased compared to last week and is currently at the epidemic threshold but will likely increase as additional death certificates are processed.”
Both parts of the sentence are important: COVID-19 mortality has decreased, likely for the reasons discussed above. But also, we don’t yet have a full picture.
Public health officials have cautioned that this lag in death statistics could spell trouble. “We know deaths lag at least two weeks and can lag even more,” Surgeon General Jerome Adams said Friday. “Deaths always lag, considerably, behind cases,” Anthony Fauci, the administration’s top infectious disease effort testified last month.
But conservative voices — echoing the President — have looked on the brighter side of things.
The Washington Times reported that the good news about dropping mortality “has been all but lost amid the alarm over the summer surge of COVID-19 cases and talk about a second shutdown.”
In an op-ed last week, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) accused the media and the left of aiming to create “hysteria” and cited the virus’ falling mortality rate.
And the Daily Wire, Ben Shapiro’s hugely influential website, trumpeted that the CDC now “Admits” that COVID was “On Verge Of Non-Epidemic Status.” (The CDC wasn’t “admitting” anything, it was just reporting statistics.)
The optimism over the mortality rate also misses the bigger picture: According to public data compiled by Woldometer, just a handful of countries — Mexico, India, Brazil, Iran and Russia — have surpassed or are close to surpassing the United States’ daily death toll from the virus.
And even as the daily toll declines in the United States, hundreds of Americans are still dying daily from the disease. As more data becomes available after-the-fact about causes of death, that number will rise retroactively.