Fox News hosts claim that a model's lowered projections for COVID-19 deaths show that the novel coronavirus is less deadly than originally anticipated and that the U.S. economy can be swiftly reopened. But there’s a major problem with this argument: The model they cite assumes that social distancing measures are extended through the end of May and are then replaced by an expansive regime of testing, tracing, and quarantining that does not currently exist.
Public health officials say that successful adoption of social distancing has led to dramatic reductions in the number of projected deaths from COVID-19. Up to 2.2 million Americans could have died from COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic if no action had been taken to curb its spread, according to a March 16 report from the Imperial College COVID Response Team in the United Kingdom. U.S. government public health officials estimated on March 31 -- after the federal government promoted social distancing recommendations and many states closed schools and nonessential businesses, issuing stay-at-home orders -- that 100,000 to 240,000 people could be killed by the virus. And around the same time, a model generated by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington projected 84,000 deaths by August, but it was revised down to 60,000 deaths in early April.
Pro-Trump media figures, including Fox’s prime-time hosts, have argued that these lowered projections don’t show the success of social distancing measures, but rather that the virus isn’t as deadly as public health experts initially thought. They are using the new numbers to delegitimize the advice of those experts and push for a swift end to social distancing measures and a reopening of the economy. That argument mirrors President Donald Trump’s waning patience for the status quo.
Laura Ingraham, who has advised Trump on his response to the coronavirus, offered up the flawed narrative on her Fox show Monday night. After saying that it was not “realistic” to set up a substantial testing and tracing program before ending social distancing measures, as public health experts have called for, she suggested that it was also unnecessary to do so before reopening the economy given the reductions in COVID-19 death totals projected by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
Ingraham claimed that the government response to the coronavirus “has to be realistic and achievable for a virus that ends up -- the mortality rate will end up being about 55,000-60,000,” a reference to the IHME projection. That number is “horrible,” she added, “but certainly not [the] 2.2 million” deaths predicted by the Imperial College report.
“And we're going to then like, keep America closed till we have 7 million tests a day or a week or whatever the heck the new number is?” she continued. “I mean, that's -- people have to think about that. I mean, think about whether it's even achievable before Election Day, I should say.”
But Ingraham either didn’t bother reading the fine print on the model she is citing for the mortality rate of 60,000 deaths -- or she is deliberately hiding a key fact from her audience. The IHME projection assumes that social distancing will continue through the next month.
According to the IHME model’s FAQ: “Our model assumes social distancing stays in place until the pandemic, in its current phase, reaches the point when deaths are less than 0.3 per million people. Based on our latest projections, we expect social distancing measures to be in place through the end of May.”
Moreover, the model’s death projections rest on substantial measures being put in place after social distancing is ended: “Our forecasts of zero deaths in July and August assume that appropriate measures are put in place to guard against the reintroduction of COVID-19 from another state or country. These measures may include mass screening, contact tracing, testing of all individuals entering the country, and quarantine of people who test positive.”
Epidemiologists agree that these steps would be necessary before social distancing measures could be safely scaled back. But public health experts have been sounding the alarm that the federal government does not seem to have a plan to create such a system and has repeatedly failed to build up the necessary testing capacity to carry it out.
Ingraham and her colleagues aren’t wrong that the current economic shutdown is causing real pain to tens of millions of Americans. But they want to have it both ways. They want to pocket the merely “horrific” death totals of the IHME model projects without adopting the economically painful, bureaucratically complex steps on which that projection is based.
If they were being honest, they would have to admit that they are willing to accept far more deaths than the current projections show in order to end the restrictions that reduced those death figures in the first place. But instead, they’re just going to keep lying to -- and endangering -- their viewers.