Without once citing a source for the statistic, President Donald Trump has complained at least 20 times since early August about the media refusing to report his claim that the Covid-19 pandemic has been far more deadly in Europe than in the United States.
Reporters were right not to trust the president, because Americans have in fact died at a greater rate than Europeans since March, according to new data provided to The Intercept by Danish researchers who monitor excess mortality in Europe, and a separate analysis of deaths during the pandemic from Oxford University economists published on Tuesday.
Excess mortality is a measure used by epidemiologists to account for the real toll of a pandemic by comparing the total number of deaths from all causes each week to the average number of deaths in a typical, non-pandemic year in that country or region.
Trump’s false claim about the pandemic being worse in Europe has been central to his effort to deflect questions about why the U.S. leads the world in confirmed Covid-19 deaths since August 11, when he first claimed that “Europe has experienced a nearly 40 percent higher excess mortality rate than the United States” during the pandemic. He has made the comparison again and again in the weeks since, but never offered any explanation of how the statistic was calculated, or by whom, or why the percentage by which he claims the rise in deaths in Europe is higher than in the U.S. keeps changing.
The president has said four times that Europe has recorded 40 percent more deaths than the U.S. He’s said the figure was 33 percent twice. He put the difference at 38 percent on one occasion. A week later, he said it was 24 percent twice.
At an ABC News town hall two weeks ago, Trump said the confirmed Covid-19 death toll, showing the U.S. harder hit than any nation, should be ignored because, “There’s a chart that just came out a little while ago: excess mortality rate is compared to Europe, compared to other places, it’s about 25 percent better. In one case, it’s over 60 percent better.” He did not provide the chart.
.@GStephanopoulos presses Pres. Trump on his claim that the U.S. is doing better in mortality when it comes to COVID-19 than other countries: “We’re not at the top of the list.”
— ABC News (@ABC) September 16, 2020
Four days after that, he said the gap with Europe was 30 percent. Last week, he said it was 30 percent two more times, and then switched again, telling rally-goers in Pennsylvania and Florida that the reporters covering his campaign “don’t want to tell you” that “Europe has had almost a 50 percent greater excess mortality rate than the United States.”
Not only were all of the president’s numbers wrong, but the true figures on deaths from all causes during the pandemic, compiled by researchers in Denmark and England, show that the U.S. has done significantly worse than Europe, not better, at keeping its citizens alive during the pandemic.
From February to September, excess deaths in Europe increased by 12 percent according to an analysis carried out at the request of The Intercept by the European Mortality Monitoring Project, a network of European public health experts who track mortality in 24 European nations or regions. Lasse Vestergaard, the EuroMOMO project coordinator, and a senior medical officer in the Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Prevention at Denmark’s Statens Serum Institut, said in an email that this figure can be compared to CDC data on excess deaths for the same period which shows that the spike in mortality in the U.S. was about 19 percent.
A New York Times analysis of the CDC’s excess death statistics for a slightly different time period — from March 15 to September 5 — arrived at a similar figure for the U.S. showing 266,900 more deaths than normal, which is an increase of 20 percent.
Data provided by Vestergaard showed that at the height of the pandemic in Europe, from March to June, excess deaths spiked by 25.6 percent. What brought the overall figure down so much was a sharp and sustained drop in deaths across the region from June into September, when mortality was just 2.2 percent above normal.
Although a September 12 Trump campaign statement claiming that “Europe experienced a 24% higher excess mortality rate than the United States” linked to the EuroMOMO website as evidence, Vestergaard told me in a Skype interview that the idea that their data supported this claim was “incorrect.”
A separate study of excess deaths in Europe and the U.S. released on Tuesday reached a similar conclusion. The Oxford University economists Janine Aron and John Muellbauer, who compared the CDC data to data for a larger portion of Europe from the Human Mortality Database, reported that “Europe’s cumulative excess mortality rate from March to July is 28 percent lower than the US rate.”
Aron and Muellbauer found that excess deaths from the start of March to the end of July increased by 12.4 percent in the 28 European nations they tracked, compared to 17.2 percent in the U.S. during that period. Since the region the economists looked at — including most of the European Union plus the United Kingdom, Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland — has nearly 200 million more people in it than the U.S. their measure of the excess mortality rate corrects for population.
The economists, who were spurred to dive into the data by Trump’s patently false claims about excess mortality in the U.S. and Europe, observed last month in a previous study that the comparison is even more damning for the Trump administration when you consider that the pandemic hit Europe first and the continent has an older population than the U.S. living in more densely populated countries.
“U.S. policy-makers have had multiple advantages over European countries, such as Italy and Spain, in responding to the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. First, there was more time to react,” Aron and Muellbauer wrote in August. “Second, Europe is disadvantaged by having an older population than the U.S. and the population density is also far higher in Europe and the large cities in Europe have higher population densities than large cities in the U.S.”
In their August paper, which looked at excess mortality from March to June, Aron and Muellbauer found that it was 20.31 percent higher than normal in the U.S. and 15.94 percent higher in Europe for the same period. That means, despite Trump’s claims, excess mortality for the first part of the pandemic in the U.S. was 22 percent worse, not better, than in Europe.
While Trump has never mentioned where he got the incorrect excess mortality stats he’s been hawking, it seems likely that they came from Dr. Scott Atlas, the Fox News commentator the president added to his coronavirus task force the day before he started making the false comparison to Europe. Atlas has frequently cited the same metric in media interviews and claimed to have done the calculations himself.
In an interview published on the Wall Street Journal opinion page on September 4, Atlas told Tunku Varadarajan, his colleague at the conservative Hoover Institution think tank at Stanford, that the U.S. was “doing much better than Europe.”
“By his own calculations,” Varadarajan reported of Atlas, “the U.S. has had 38% fewer ‘excess mortality deaths’ — fatalities over and above those that would have occurred in a nonpandemic year — for people over 65 than Europe. (The data include most of the European Union plus Norway, Switzerland and the U.K.).”
In a press briefing two hours after that interview was published, Trump — who has never said that he was referring only to the deaths of people over 65 — told reporters that “the nations of Europe have experienced a 38 percent greater excess mortality than the United States.”
Atlas, who is a radiologist, not an infectious disease expert or an epidemiologist, then defended Trump by telling the BBC that Europe had “done 28 percent worse than the United States in excess mortality.” In a subsequent White House briefing, Trump’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, told another BBC reporter, who asked why the U.S. has “4 percent of the global population and 24 percent of the coronavirus deaths,” that Europe “has experienced a 28 percent higher excess mortality rate than the United States.”
“On the great success story you talked about, about COVID, in the richest country in the world, you have 4% of the global population and 24% of the coronavirus deaths. How is that a success story?” pic.twitter.com/223Pgk6Krl
— Pod Save America (@PodSaveAmerica) September 16, 2020
“Excess mortality is an indicator that takes into account the percent deaths above what would occur without a pandemic,” McEnany said. “You have to look at this holistically.”
Although Atlas failed to respond to multiple requests from The Intercept to explain what sources he was using, he seemed to suggest in a video interview with the Daily Caller last week that he used the EuroMOMO excess mortality data for Europe. Explaining his calculations, he told the interviewers that “the data is available for a set of 24 countries,” which matches the region tracked by the Danish team that runs the EuroMOMO project.
Atlas did not tell the Daily Caller what figure he was using for Europe, but he said that excess mortality in the U.S. during the pandemic was 19.9 percent higher than normal, which seems to indicate that he has been using CDC data correctly, but somehow distorting the figures for Europe.
The fact that Atlas appears to have been feeding Trump misleading or incorrect statistics on excess mortality echoes criticism of his role from the federal government’s most senior immunologist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who told the AIDS activist Peter Staley on Friday that, “he’s a smart guy, no doubt about it, but he tends to cherry-pick data.”
The same day, an NBC journalist overheard the CDC director, Dr. Robert Redfield, criticizing Atlas in a phone call to a colleague. “Everything he says is false,” Redfield told his colleague.
Asked by CNN on Monday if he was worried about what Atlas was telling the president, Fauci said, “I’m concerned that sometimes things are said that are really taken either out of context or are actually incorrect.”
Fauci suggests there is an "outlier" on White House coronavirus task force when asked about CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield's concerns that Dr. Scott Atlas is sharing misleading information with President Trump on COVID-19 pic.twitter.com/YydIhtj4YE
— Talking Points Memo (@TPM) September 28, 2020
Throughout the pandemic, Trump has used a series of misleading or incorrect statistics to deflect attention from his failure to respond to the outbreak as well as other leaders. In April, for instance, he repeatedly cited a misleading bar chart that compared the U.S. deaths per capita to just a handful of European nations that were, at that time, struggling to contain the virus.
After most European countries succeeded in bringing down infections and deaths in June, but the U.S. did not, Trump started dodging questions about the spiking U.S. mortality rate by insisting that reporters look instead at another metric: the case fatality rate, a largely irrelevant statistic measuring death from Covid as a percentage of confirmed cases.
That effort was first undermined when Trump demonstrated in an interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News that he did not understand the metric himself.
Two weeks later, Trump’s effort to distract attention from the mounting Covid-19 death toll by pointing to the case fatality rate had to be abandoned after he was humiliated by Jonathan Swan of Axios in a television interview that made the attempted sleigh-of-hand embarrassingly obvious.
.@jonathanvswan: “Oh, you’re doing death as a proportion of cases. I’m talking about death as a proportion of population. That’s where the U.S. is really bad. Much worse than South Korea, Germany, etc.”@realdonaldtrump: “You can’t do that.”
Swan: “Why can’t I do that?” pic.twitter.com/MStySfkV39
— Axios (@axios) August 4, 2020
“Take a look at some of these charts,” Trump said to Swan during the most excruciating segment of the interview. “Here is one. Well, right here, the United States is lowest in… numerous categories. We’re lower than… the world.”
“Lower than the world?” Swan asked. “What does that mean?”
“We’re lower than Europe,” Trump continued.
“In what?” Swan asked.
“Take a look,” Trump said, handing Swan a chart of case fatality rates. “Right here. Here is case death.”
Taking the chart, Swan looked digested it quickly and said: “Oh, you’re doing death as a proportion of cases. I’m talking about death as a proportion of population. That’s where the U.S. is really bad, much worse than South Korea, Germany, et cetera.”
A stunned Trump’s only reply was: “You can’t do that.”
One week after that interview was broadcast, Trump introduced Scott Atlas at a White House briefing and started making his entirely false claims about excess mortality in the United States being far lower than in Europe.
At a rally in Duluth, Minnesota on Wednesday night, Trump made the false comparison for at least the 21st time. “Europe is almost a 50 per cent greater excess mortality rate than the United States,” Trump said, reading from his prepared remarks. Looking away from the teleprompter he complained to his supporters that this statistic was not being reported. “You don’t hear that,” he said.
Updated: Thursday, Oct. 1, 4:10 p.m. PDT
This article was updated to report that President Donald Trump lied to his supporters about excess mortality during the pandemic again on Wednesday.