Deluded in Chief

Deluded in Chief March 9, 2020

In 2015, before he announced his bid for president, Donald Trump made the following statement regarding whether he would be getting a flu that year:

“I’ve never had one… I don’t like the idea of injecting bad stuff into [my] body. I have friends that religiously get the flu shot and then they get the flu… I’ve seen a lot of reports that the last flu shot is virtually totally ineffective.” He went on to add, “I’ve passed on it, but that doesn’t mean [other] people should.”

“Bad stuff”? Really? Bad stuff?

Five years later, as cases of the novel coronavirus began popping up across the U.S., Trump stated on camera that he had had no idea the flu actually killed people:

“Over the last long period of time, you have an average of 36,000 people dying [per year]. I never heard those numbers. I would’ve been shocked. I would’ve said, ‘Does anybody die from the flu? I didn’t know people died from the flu.’ … And again, you had a couple of years where it was over a 100,000 people died from the flu.”

This is kind of important.

Despite what Trump appears to have thought prior to now, the flu vaccine does not exist simply to help ordinary healthy people avoid the inconvenience of having the flu. It also exists to save the lives of those with fragile health, who might die from the flu if they caught it. This is why we talk about herd immunity: the more we can slow the spread of diseases, the more we can protect those among us who are immunocompromised, elderly, or otherwise particularly at-risk.

Trump appears not to have known any of this. He says straight-out that he didn’t know anyone died from the flu. Which is fine. But other things are not fine.

As an aside, I just checked and couldn’t find any year in the past five decades when the number of flu deaths was over 100,000. I also looked at the 36,000 figure, because I was curious what “over the last long period of time” meant, and found that that average was for the 1990s. This may seem like a minor details issue, but I think it’s important, because Trump is not admitting his ignorance and stopping there, he’s also throwing a list of stats out there with little context.

Sure, his stats aren’t that off, and 36,000 deaths a year absolutely was the average for the 1990s. (The average in the last decade has been slightly lower). What bothers me is that he can’t admit that this area is not his forte and then turn things over to the experts. No, he has to bloviate at length regarding something he knows little about.

And then there’s this quote from the same recent visit to the CDC:

“I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it … Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president.”

How do you at once admit that you didn’t even know people died of the flu and at the same time claim that the experts are impressed by how much you know on this subject? How is this real life?

Then, this morning, Donald Trump tweeted this:

So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!

I literally cannot think of anyone less qualified to talk on this subject.

He’s getting the numbers wrong again. According to the CDC, annual flu deaths average between 12,000 and 61,000. I was so confused by Trump’s use of different (if somewhat similar) numbers that I tried a google search for “flu deaths” and his numbers—27,000 and 70,000—hoping to find where they’re from. I couldn’t find them anywhere. Until I found this 1994 article, that is:

What worries scientists and epidemiologists most about the flu is the sporadic emergence of a flu pandemic such as the one in 1918. Only two other flu pandemics broke out in this century, the Asian flu in 1957, which killed 70,000 Americans, and the Hong Kong flu in 1968, which killed 27,000 Americans.

In other words, Trump is literally just throwing out numbers he once heard about something sort of related, and attaching them to something else entirely. This is so ridiculously sloppy. The CDC website on flu deaths really isn’t that hard to find, and it clearly reads as follows:

CDC estimates that influenza has resulted in between 9 million – 45 million illnesses, between 140,000 – 810,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 – 61,000 deaths annually since 2010.

I don’t feel like getting simply facts straight—especially when basic data isn’t that hard to find—should be all that difficult. And yet here we are. With a purveyor of misinformation in chief.

But really, this is the least bad aspect of his tweet. His tweet, remember, reads as follows:

So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!

I’m trying to figure out how we got from “OMG, I had no idea people died of the flu” to ” the flu kills thousands of people every year, so people dying from coronavirus is no big deal.”

The fact that the flu kills thousands of people each year should scare the pants off people, because the novel coronavirus COVID-19 is many times deadlier than the flu, even in South Korea, where the fatality rate is the lowest, and because there is no vaccine, meaning that a larger proportion of the population could get it, and that there is less resistance to slow its spread.

And this is the man who claimed every single medical expert at the CDC was amazed by his natural aptitude for epidemiology and asked him how he knew so much about virology.

Y’all. No one is driving this bus.

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