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Trump Administration Rejects Government Report On COVID-19 Death Toll

May 5, 2020
Originally published on May 5, 2020 11:00 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

How many Americans will die from COVID-19? At this point, we just don't know. The Trump administration has offered some numbers. Over the past few weeks, the expected death toll has gone up. And then yesterday, The New York Times reported that it had gotten hold of an internal administration document. That document talks about even more coming deaths than the president has predicted publicly. Now, this document came to light as President Trump goes to Arizona today. Before he left, he confirmed that one of the key members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Dr. Anthony Fauci, will testify before the Senate next week about the government's response. With me now are NPR's global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman and White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Good morning, ladies.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: Nurith, let me start with you. What is in this document that the Times got ahold of?

AIZENMAN: So this document looks like slides for a presentation, at least that's how it's formatted. It's stamped with the logos of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA. It's titled, quote, "Centers For Disease Control And Prevention Situation Update." And it includes graphs projecting that, by June 1, the U.S. will see more than 200,000 new COVID-19 cases per day and more than 3,000 deaths per day with no end date given.

But - and this is big - I spoke with the epidemiologist who came up with those graphs. He is Justin Lessler a professor at Johns Hopkins University, part of a team that FEMA has contracted to help them with COVID-19 modeling. And he says these are not his final projections; this was a work in progress.

KING: OK, so what does that mean?

AIZENMAN: Lessler says, those figures, they reflect only about one-third of the various scenarios he's been running of how the pandemic might play out, you know, depending on what assumptions you make about variables like how the virus transmits, et cetera, so that he can ultimately come up with a final projection.

KING: Do we know how those graphs made it into this White House document?

AIZENMAN: Well, we don't even know that it's a White House document.

KING: Oh, OK.

AIZENMAN: And Lessler says he did provide the graphs to FEMA, you know, the way you share a work in progress with colleagues so they can see how it's coming together or give input. But Lessler does not know how the graphs got into that particular document, let alone - has it been used to brief any officials? Is it just some kind of draft? NPR contacted the CDC. They gave us a statement saying this data wasn't theirs and just directed us to FEMA. That's all they would say. NPR then reached out to FEMA. We have not heard back.

KING: OK, so there's a lot here we don't know. Tam, let me turn this over to you. How is the White House responding to this?

KEITH: They responded very quickly - uncharacteristically quickly. Spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement that this was not a White House document. It had not been presented to the coronavirus task force and has not gone through interagency vetting. He said it doesn't reflect any modeling done by or analyzed by the task force as it worked on the phased guidelines for reopening the economy. And he said that easing restrictions safely remains the top priority of the administration.

Now, one thing that is worth noting is that President Trump himself, in his public statements about expectations for the death toll from the coronavirus, has shifted a lot. You had him in late March saying that if there were 100,000 to 200,000 deaths, that the nation will have done a good job. Then on April 20, he suggested it would be 50,000 to 60,000. Then over this past weekend, he adjusted his projection up, saying 75,000, 80,000 or 100,000. And just to put it in perspective, the death toll in the U.S. is closing in on 70,000 now.

KING: OK. So, Nurith, let me ask you - when the White House makes predictions, where are they coming up with their numbers?

AIZENMAN: You know, one reason that leaked internal documents on this generates so much interest is because the administration has been opaque about how they're doing their internal modeling. This dates back to March 31. There was this White House press conference that officials had billed as the moment they were going to reveal their data. And instead, they just pointed to a model by researchers at the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

KING: This is a model that we have all heard about. But the IHME, they've now revised that model, right?

AIZENMAN: Yes, just yesterday. IHME now projects that the current wave of infections in the U.S. won't be over until after August 1, by which point nearly 135,000 people will have died. That's nearly double the deaths IHME was previously forecasting. They say a big reason for the revision is so many states are on track to ease social distancing rules now. And interestingly, IHME's revision puts its forecast much more in line with a lot of the other prominent models that are out there.

KING: OK. Now, Tam, despite all of this, President Trump is obviously really eager to reopen the economy, get things back to normal. He's taking his first big trip since March today. What's he up to?

KEITH: He's visiting a Honeywell plant that just recently started making N95 respirator masks. And this is part of an effort that President Trump and his White House are making to project an image of America rising out of quarantine.

But this also highlights the challenges of the moment. Arizona hasn't yet had the two weeks of reduced cases called for in the White House plan for reopening. There will be social distancing measures in place on the trip. And this also isn't a political event. It isn't the kind of event that President Trump really wants to see resume in the future. Here's how he described his goal last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Hopefully in the not too distant future, we'll have some massive rallies and people will be sitting next to each other. I can't imagine a rally where you have every fourth seat full. Every six seats are empty for every one that you have full, that wouldn't look too good.

KEITH: The last time President Trump was in Arizona in February, he held a rally. He didn't mention the virus during his speech. And in a local TV interview that night, he said, I think it's going to work out fine.

KING: NPR's Tamara Keith and Nurith Aizenman. Thank you both.

KEITH: You're welcome.

AIZENMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.