The Pandemic Really Is Fake News: It’s Deadlier Than Anyone Realized

Good riddance to a superspreading coronavirus election campaign.

Garrett-Laurie-foreign-policy-columnist9
Garrett-Laurie-foreign-policy-columnist9
Laurie Garrett
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
A sign marking 230,000 coronavirus deaths in the United States is displayed outside the White House in Washington on Oct. 31.
A sign marking 230,000 coronavirus deaths in the United States is displayed outside the White House in Washington on Oct. 31.
A sign marking 230,000 coronavirus deaths in the United States is displayed outside the White House in Washington on Oct. 31. Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

Now that we’ve arrived at Election Day, we can safely conclude that the intersection of U.S. President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign with the COVID-19 pandemic was unimaginably awful. For weeks, Trump exhorted crowds to pack like sardines to hear him speak, masks optional, about how under his leadership the country is “turning the corner” on the epidemic. As for the 237,142 Americans who have died of the disease—ignore them, they’re a fraud.

The truth is that the United States’ epidemic is out of control, with cases rising in 48 of 50 states, some 800 added every day to the names of the deceased, and hospitals nationwide reporting that their intensive care units are full, staffing is short, and supplies are running out. Trump has claimed that doctors make money by falsely listing deaths as caused by COVID-19; that lie is an appalling affront to the nation’s exhausted medical workers from Honolulu to Bangor, Maine. The American Medical Association denounced Trump’s profiteering claims as "malicious, outrageous, and completely misguided."

Although Trump supporters have long argued that COVID-19 deaths are overstated, all scientific evidence points in the opposite direction. A study by public health scholars at the University of Pennsylvania and Boston University recently showed an enormous excess death toll in 2020 compared to prior years. The study's authors reckon that 26 percent of the excess deaths were uncounted COVID-19 cases.

Now that we’ve arrived at Election Day, we can safely conclude that the intersection of U.S. President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign with the COVID-19 pandemic was unimaginably awful. For weeks, Trump exhorted crowds to pack like sardines to hear him speak, masks optional, about how under his leadership the country is “turning the corner” on the epidemic. As for the 237,142 Americans who have died of the disease—ignore them, they’re a fraud.

The truth is that the United States’ epidemic is out of control, with cases rising in 48 of 50 states, some 800 added every day to the names of the deceased, and hospitals nationwide reporting that their intensive care units are full, staffing is short, and supplies are running out. Trump has claimed that doctors make money by falsely listing deaths as caused by COVID-19; that lie is an appalling affront to the nation’s exhausted medical workers from Honolulu to Bangor, Maine. The American Medical Association denounced Trump’s profiteering claims as “malicious, outrageous, and completely misguided.”

Although Trump supporters have long argued that COVID-19 deaths are overstated, all scientific evidence points in the opposite direction. A study by public health scholars at the University of Pennsylvania and Boston University recently showed an enormous excess death toll in 2020 compared to prior years. The study’s authors reckon that 26 percent of the excess deaths were uncounted COVID-19 cases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the 2020 excess death toll by the end of September at 299,000, arguing two-thirds of those numbers were COVID-19. A separate study looked just at the months of March through July, compared with the same time period in previous years, finding 225,000 excess deaths. At least 67 percent of that excess, they said, was due to COVID-19.

Comparing the United States’ excess death rates with those of other wealthy nations, researchers at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania found that the United States had the third-highest rate of mortality from February through July, with 71.6 deaths per 100,000 people. “If the US death rates were comparable to Australia, the US would have had 187 661 fewer COVID-19 deaths (94% of reported deaths), and if comparable with Canada, 117 622 fewer deaths (59%),” the researchers wrote.

Moreover, for every individual American that has died of COVID-19, an average of nine grieving immediate family members are left behind, traumatized, needing mental health care. And former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers reckons the economic consequences of the United States’ COVID-19 crisis is $16 trillion.

Using the numbers suggested in these studies, the 231,486 deaths officially tallied should be augmented by 26 percent of the CDC’s excess deaths, bringing the death toll to 359,100, leaving behind 3,231,900 grieving family members.

Trump owes every family and friend that has lost a loved one in our coronavirus catastrophe an apology. In his pursuit of reelection he has discounted their lives, insisted “almost nobody” dies from COVID-19, and insisted the virus is nothing to worry about. “Don’t let it dominate your life,” he said. That’s never been a real option for Americans—but getting rid of Trump still is.

Laurie Garrett is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer. Twitter: @Laurie_Garrett

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