The warning from the nation’s top public health official was terrifying.
“This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment, only it’s not going to be localized,” U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said on Fox News last Sunday, referring to coming deaths due to the novel coronavirus. “It’s going to be happening all over the country. And I want America to understand that.”
Holy Week, Adams further cautioned, would be the “hardest and saddest week of most Americans’ lives.”
President Trump echoed Adams’ dire prediction. “We are coming up onto a time that’s going to be very horrendous, probably a time like we haven’t seen in this country,” Trump said from the White House on April 4. Instead of celebrating Easter and Passover this week, the president soberly admonished, Americans would instead see “some very bad numbers” about people succumbing to COVID-19.
Those alarming forecasts were based on a model produced by the University of Washington late last month. Dr. Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle, assembled a set of graphs to show how COVID-19 would overwhelm the country’s health care system, causing a shortage of hospital beds, intensive care units and ventilators.
Murray also originally calculated that 2,271 people would die on April 15, which would be the peak “death day” in the United States. But that wasn’t the only scary news. Sick people would by dying in the streets and entryways outside of hospitals across the country because no beds would be available.
“The latest US estimates point to peak hospital use nationwide on April 15,” Murray wrote on March 30. “At this projected peak, the U.S. could face substantial need in total and intensive care unit (ICU) beds, as well as ventilators. An estimated need of 224,321 total beds (33,440 for ICU) and 26,753 ventilators at peak could be devastating for hospitals and health workers nationwide.” The high demand would result in massive shortages of nearly 85,000 regular beds and nearly 19,000 ICUs by mid-April.
Dramatic Revisions Downward
The Murray model has been fully embraced by the president’s top two health advisors, Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci. The pair presented the doomsday model to President Trump on March 28, which prompted his decision to extend the CDC “social distancing” guidelines until the end of this month. (It bears repeating that the Murray model factored in “full social distancing” such as the shutdown of schools and nonessential businesses as well as stay-at-home orders through the end of May.)
Birx and Fauci also presented Murray’s charts to the White House press corps on March 31. Birx, relying on the model’s most extreme range of total fatalities, warned that upwards of 240,000 people would die of coronavirus in the United States by the beginning of August. The next two weeks, Birx admonished at the time, would be particularly painful. “As sobering as that number is, we need to be prepared for it,” Fauci told the socially distanced reporters in the briefing room. “Is it going to be that much? I hope not.”
But this week’s Pearl Harbor and 9/11 didn’t happen. Widespread death and devastation couldn’t be found.
Aside from two states, the rest of the country escaped terrorist-attack level fatalities this week. Between April 4 and April 9, a little more than 8,000 people in the country reportedly died from COVID-19; more than half of the fatalities occurred in New York and New Jersey. A tragedy no doubt, but certainly not the “hardest and saddest week” for most Americans, as Adams warned.
Only one other state—Michigan—has more than 1,000 recorded deaths so far. Populous states such as California, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Texas have fewer than 500 fatalities. Many states are still in the double-digit range.
Further, the Murray model has been revised dramatically since its publication. An April 2 update predicted more than 93,000 total deaths by August; the April 5 update revised that figure downward to about 82,000. The total number of hospital beds needed dropped drastically between the two updates, from 262,092 beds to 140,823 beds. Predicted demand for ICUs dropped by about 10,000; ventilator demand dropped by nearly 12,000. Some of the model’s state-by-state projections also changed.
Beds and ICUs are aplenty across the country. There are so many ventilators available that we will now supply the machines to other countries in need.
But Fauci and Birx remain committed to the now-debunked model. Fauci admitted earlier this week that the total death count could be closer to 60,000 because of successful mitigation measures. (Again, these policies were built into Murray’s analysis.) He told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie any claims that COVID-19 deaths were being over-reported was a “conspiracy theory” although CDC guidance allows local officials to code for a COVID-19 fatality even if no test was administered to confirm the presence of the disease.
Too Many Contradictions
Rather than admit the inherent flaws in the Murray model and confess the doomsday scenarios were completely unwarranted, Fauci, Birx, and Adams are stepping up their demands to keep the country under house arrest while the once-vibrant U.S. economy dives into Depression-era territory.
Adams, who in a February 1 tweet said the risk of getting coronavirus was “low” and scolded Americans for buying face masks as the outbreak spread across the world, wants the country to remain in a standstill for the foreseeable future. “Most of the country” will not be ready to reopen by May 1, Adams said in a Fox News interview on Friday morning. “Now is the time for us to lean into this because we know that the more we participate in social distancing, the flatter the curve is and the quicker we can get to the other side.”
Fauci has made several blown calls, too. On January 21, the day that the first coronavirus patient was identified in Washington, Fauci downplayed the disease.
“This is not a major threat to the people of the United States and this is not something the citizens of the United States should be worried about,” he said in an interview.
After writing in the New England Journal of Medicine on February 28 that early data suggested COVID-19 would perform more like a “severe seasonal influenza,” Fauci testified to Congress that the coronavirus was far deadlier than the flu. “It is 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu,” Fauci told the House Oversight Committee on March 11. “This is a really serious problem that we have to take seriously.”
In an interview with Chuck Todd on March 15, Fauci said Americans should “hunker down” but didn’t recommend the shuttering of public spaces such as bars and restaurants. By April 2, Fauci was calling for a nationwide shutdown. “I don’t understand why that’s not happening,” Fauci told CNN’s Anderson Cooper, referring to a federally mandated stay-at-home order.
Fauci, Birx, and Adams have sent too many mixed messages from the start. While at first diminishing the threat of COVID-19, they now are sowing fear and panic across the country.
Most irresponsibly, their reliance on unsound, untested models has led to the swiftest and most destructive economic decline in U.S. history with no relief in sight. Their intentions may be good, but their poor planning and execution have been dangerous.
President Trump should let them go back to their desk jobs for now while he quickly devises a plan to restart this cratering economy, free Americans from house arrest, and get life back to as normal as possible. He can’t let this trio run the show anymore. They had their chance—they have failed.