Why Trump’s focus on falling death rates could be dangerous

2 min

Why Trump’s focus on falling death rates could be dangerous

Ducey on Thursday said the rate of spread in his state is “unacceptable” and paused further reopening.

“We expect our numbers to be worse next week and the week following,” Ducey said. “There is no consideration of increasing activity. Arizona is on pause.”

In deep red Utah, Gov. Gary Herbert announced Wednesday that he would not consider lifting more lockdown restrictions for at least two weeks.


“All Utahns should be concerned about the increasing infection rates,” Herbert said. “They should be concerned because of what it does to our hospital capacity.”

Herbert warned packed hospitals can quickly overwhelm health workers. “We have a limitation more on personnel than on bed space,” he said.

Louisiana’s Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards, is keeping occupancy limits in public spaces in place for at least another month, because the average number of new daily infections is up about 50 percent this month and hospitalizations are rising across several parts of his state.

“We simply are not ready to move to the next phase, and ease restrictions further as businesses open widely,” he said, adding that 90 percent of new cases are from community spread, not from congregate settings such as nursing homes or jails.

But other governors have maintained a focus on the mortality rate to justify forging ahead, even as infections spike.

“The most important data is the death rate,” said Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday, after boasting that his state is tops when it comes to hotel and restaurant recovery.

It’s not the first time lawmakers have shifted rationales to justify their actions. When lockdowns were first lifted in early May, some governors who ignored the White House’s criteria for safely reopening pointed to declining cases in their states. When new infections started rising, they said it was safe to proceed because hospitals had plenty of room to treat patients.

The shift to the death rate most alarms public health officials who fear it is distracting the public from taking necessary precautions and allowing elected officials to punt on tough decisions.

“They are grasping at straws to try and explain this away,” said Jeffrey Shaman, an infectious disease researcher at the Columbia University School of Public Health. “We’re looking at people picking at the margins for explanations to deny that we are seeing a surge.”


The Trump administration always expected cases to rise as testing improved and economic activity resumed, and gambled that Americans would trade a certain number of deaths if it meant getting back to work. Trump touted higher stock prices and a better than expected jobs report while 20,000 new infections a day became commonplace.

But the new threat in places like Arizona and Texas has changed the calculus, said Catherine Lutz, an anthropology professor at Brown University.

“The stress on the health care system has de-normalized it again,” she said. “I don’t know if [governors] would have tapped the brakes if we’d been able to handle it in our health care system.”

The exponential spread in the virus, particularly across the Sun Belt, has also scrambled perceptions about what the nation is prepared to accept.

“It doesn’t have to be a huge number for people to say this isn’t right,” Lutz said. “People interpret the number is too much if there is something that can be done to prevent it.”


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