Donald Trump is Deceiving Americans With Unreliable Covid-19 Projections

Die hard Trump supporters only trust him for Coronavirus news and information — Trump needs to give it to them straight

Andy Slavitt
Medium Coronavirus Blog
5 min readMay 5, 2020


Photo by Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

We’ve been lied to about the potential death toll in this country and that matters.

The warping of the conversation about death tolls is problematic. People who warn of dire consequences get labeled fear mongers, or worse. Some are accused of wanting to be right at all costs. All this wrangling cheapens our losses.

It wasn’t a month ago that the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), touted by Trump, released a 60,000 estimated death forecast. I participated in a conversation with the lead modeler and reported what I heard. At the time, even with the hope that Americans would #StayHome, the reasonable estimates of most models were 100,000–250,000, in some cases higher. In some cases much higher.

IHME’s forecast of 60,000 deaths was a bomb let off by the White House. It sent a clear message — this virus is overblown hype. We got this. 60,000 is a number Americans can “tolerate.” It sounds vaguely like a bad flu. The president was quick to come out and claim success for this new number, even though his team had told him 100k-250k. We could have had over a million deaths, but now it will be 50–60k. For many governors and Trump supporters, it was all they needed to hear.

In my estimation, something the president gets wrong is the public’s tolerance for bad news. Bad news served up straight. Hope and plans are good but only when they are rooted in reality. 60k was another version of “gone by April” or “15 going to zero.”

One reason I avoid criticizing these models is the people who put them together are doing something unknowable, have different purposes, will be wrong be definition, and exponential growth means wide confidence intervals depending on assumptions.

As soon as Trump unleashed the 60,000 number, my Twitter mentions filled up with “I-told-you-so’s” from the people who told me I was wrong when I shared that scientists in March were telling me they could foresee a death toll over 1 million if we didn’t dramatically reduce the infection rate.

Making sure that didn’t happen is the primary reason I, along with 15 other bipartisan health care and scientific leaders, launched the #StayHome initiative. Because even with bad news, if you have the truth, you can act.

Back in April I felt that if we’re going to be overrun by a “new” model, I should know what went into this model. So I listened and shared what I heard in an April 9 update:

I will repeat what I heard here. The 60,000 model assumes:

  1. States without social distancing don’t have any outbreaks
  2. No inter-state/international travel
  3. The infection rate R0 goes below 1
  4. There is no let up of social distancing
  5. No state opens until they have less than 10 cases
  6. It ends by August

At the time the model was issued, as I probably too politely pointed out in the Medium post, it was already wrong. Wrong in New York’s results. Wrong in assuming no cases it couldn’t see. Wrong in not accounting for a second wave. Wrong in assuming there would be testing.

States like South Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa started having hotspots, travel continued (and continues) to many of the world’s hot spots, the infection rate outside of places like NY and WA are growing, social distancing let up in many states, and on-and-on.

Is this just hindsight? Not to anyone with eyes. These were bad assumptions and they were too rigorously defended. And from the president, not rigorously examined. Forget the modeler. Blame the White House for announcing a number that they couldn’t even escape April with.

Today IHME is roughly doubling their death toll estimate to 135,000 by August. In a sign that the modelers either have a great sense of humor or don’t understand cause and effect, they blamed the increase on people being lax about social distancing standards. I wonder if their model can diagnose what model White House used to downplay the virus.

Why do I say all these bogus numbers matter? Because releasing a model with these clearly unrealistic and favorable assumptions misled people. And with an infectious disease, one misled person can be enough.

Most of us can’t swallow how fast infections spread with exponential math. How social distancing — until we have reliable testing and tracing and good masks for all — is the only way to save lives. Trump, at a Fox News town hall this weekend, said the number of deaths could now be 75,000 to 100,000. As we approach 70,000 deaths, with 1,700 dying every day, he’s not leveling with us, he’s helping his supporters become the last to know.

In fact, there was a skirmish today as the NYT published that a White House report said the death toll will reach 3,000/day by the end of May. The White House disowned it and pushed back: not a forecast, just a model. Staff can’t disagree with the president.

Another model from FEMA which forecasts 200,000 new cases/day by the end of month was uncovered. If that’s even a remote possibility, it’s not responsible for the president not to be warning the country. The president needs to consider, in this instance erring, on the side of caution and risk being too conservative. Make Americans over-prepared. He has too often roundly refuted experts the last three years. His base will listen only to him.

I can expect some people will sharpen their teeth and argue points of the model. That’s fine. I expect that. But it’s so beyond the point — which is to help guide us to safe smart actions.

Covid-19 seems to be a uniquely tough American foe. The rest of the world is figuring it out. The Czech Republic did it with masks. China with isolation. Germany with testing. Hong Kong with experience. New Zealand with alerts. Greece with discipline.

The cost of these lessons is already too high. But it is not beyond our power to change it. But I’m afraid to change this, we do have to face it first.