Though we’ve been experiencing a national rise in cases since mid-June, until more recently, the number of people dying per day was declining. There were a few logical explanations for this. There appeared to be more cases in young people, for whom COVID-19 is less fatal, possibly because they were experiencing caution fatigue. With more tests available, it was becoming easier to record milder cases of the virus, from which people would recover. But also, experts cautioned: Whatever the exact contours of the graph lines, we were probably going to see a rise in daily deaths eventually, just like we are now.
“Deaths always lag considerably behind cases,” Anthony Fauci explained to Congress in June, in response to a question on whether a lower death rate could be taken as a positive sign. “The majority of people who die, it takes a while,” epidemiologist Eleanor Murray told Vox’s Dylan Scott earlier this month, explaining that a lag between cases and deaths could be about a month or so, which maps to what we’re starting to see now. The lag between cases and deaths can work both ways, Fauci pointed out during his congressional testimony. “You might remember that at the time New York was in their worst situation where the deaths were going up, and yet the cases were starting to go down. The deaths only came down multiple weeks later.”
A low death rate, then, is a poor indicator of the larger scope of what’s going on with the virus at any given point; the cases are the more useful data for informing policy. Nevertheless, in recent weeks the White House has been invoking the relatively low number of deaths to indicate success. “When you look at the mortality rate, we’re seeing that our efforts here at the federal government have been working,” press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said last week, answering questions about the rise in cases. “I heard we have one of the lowest, maybe the lowest, mortality rate anywhere in the world,” President Donald Trump said on Fox News over the weekend. “No. 1 low mortality rate.” It’s far from true that we have the lowest coronavirus mortality rate in the world—we are in fact the country with the eighth deadliest rate—and invoking a mortality rate at all is pretty gross when the virus has killed 140,000 Americans and counting. In June, as daily deaths solidly declined, more than 20,000 people died. At a relative low point in national death on July 5, 217 people died. That’s “only” a commercial flight’s worth of people. Now that death rates are rising again, they’re the tragic reflection of lessons we should have absorbed already.
What’s more important to look at is the actual case numbers (which are still steadily rising, as they have been). Wouldn’t it be nice to have a president who wanted to keep people from getting sick in the first place? Even with exactly no more scientific knowledge than what we have now, case counts—and, therefore, death rates—could be tempered if test results were returned quickly so that people who were positive could isolate, and if people had assistance in isolating in quarantine hotels and with paid sick time. Until we do that, our ride on the death-rate roller coaster won’t end anytime soon.
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