On Wednesday, Slate published a piece by an emergency medicine doctor that made the argument that the new coronavirus is probably less deadly than current public health numbers suggest. The piece rigorously explained why the doctor, Jeremy Faust, thought that the “CFR,” or case fatality rate, was lower than we currently think. Basically it comes down to the fact that the death rate is calculated by dividing the number of people the virus kills by the number of people who have the virus. The denominator, the number of people who have the virus, is a very moving target at the moment, for a wide number of reasons, and the expectation is that it will get a lot bigger, making the case fatality rate lower. Faust made the same argument in a letter to the British Medical Journal, which the BMJ published.
The next day, Donald Trump went on Fox News and made the same point, sort of. What he actually said was:
I think the 3.4 percent [number] is really a false number. Now, this is just my hunch, but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this, because a lot of people will have this and it is very mild. They will get better very rapidly, they don’t even see a doctor or call doctor, you never hear about those people so you can’t put them down in the category, in overall population in terms of this corona flu, or virus. So you just can’t do that.
So if, you know, we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better, just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work, some of them go to work, but they get better and then, when you do have a death like you had in the state of Washington, like you had one in California, I believe you had one in New York, you know, all of a sudden it seems like 3 or 4 percent, which is a very high number, as opposed to a fraction of 1 percent.
But again, they don’t know about the easy cases because the easy cases don’t go to the hospital, they don’t report to doctors or the hospital in many cases so I think that [the WHO] number is very high. I think the number, personally, I would say the number is way under 1 percent.
He is…maybe trying to make the same point as Faust was, arguing that there are “easy cases” that don’t go to the hospital or report to their doctors, which is why the denominator is likely largely than we currently think. I mean, he sounds frighteningly incoherent, but you can kind of see it if you squint.
The real problem with his argument is that, terrifyingly as always, Donald Trump is the guy who is in charge of mobilizing the forces to figure this stuff out, to calculate the real size of the denominator. He is the guy who could make sure the government is getting tests out to everyone who needs them so that we can actually understand how many people have the coronavirus. He is the guy who could have worked to staff the relevant departments of his government with people who could deal with this and resources so that they weren’t caught in the position they’ve been caught in.
He’s not doing these things. Instead, he is going on television saying things like this:
And also this:
And amazingly, this:
And extremely unsurprisingly but still depressingly, referencing his uncle who was a physicist (not, let’s note for the record, an infectious disease specialist):