Trump says 200,000 virus deaths a ‘shame,’ but could be much worse

US president blames China for allowing virus to get out of control, claims that world-leading US could have seen 2.5 million dead if his administration did not act

A memorial for people who have died as a result of of covid-19 is seen on the National Mall on September 22, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Alex Edelman / AFP)
A memorial for people who have died as a result of of covid-19 is seen on the National Mall on September 22, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Alex Edelman / AFP)

WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump said it was “a shame” that the US had reached the grave milestone of 200,000 COVID-19-related deaths, Tuesday, but claimed that the toll was a sign of his administration’s success in dealing with the pandemic.

According to a rolling tally by Johns Hopkins University, 200,182 Americans have died and 6.86 million have been confirmed infected by the novel coronavirus, the highest tolls in the world.

Speaking to reporters before boarding a helicopter to a campaign rally in Pennsylvania, Trump at first appeared to ignore a question about the milestone, but later bemoaned the death while claiming the number would be much higher under a different president.

“I think it’s a shame. I think if we didn’t do it properly and do it right, you’d have two and a half million deaths,” he said.

“The original numbers were around 200,000, if you do it right, if you did a good job, and if the public worked along. And if you didn’t do it right, you’d be a at two million, two and a half million. Those were the numbers,” he added.

Trump also responded with his often repeated broadside that China was at fault for the pandemic.

“China should’ve stopped it at their border. They should’ve never let this spread all over the world, and it’s a terrible thing. But had we not closed our country down and reopened — and now we’re doing well in reopening; the stock market is up — all of those things.”

US President Donald Trump stops and takes questions from reporters on his way to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on September 22, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)

Overall, the US accounts for four percent of the world’s population and 20 percent of its recorded coronavirus deaths. It far outstrips Brazil and India, with 137,272 and 88,935 deaths respectively.

The number of dead is equivalent to a 9/11 attack every day for 67 days. It is roughly equal to the population of Salt Lake City or Huntsville, Alabama.

And it is still climbing. Deaths are running at close to 770 a day on average, and a widely cited model from the University of Washington predicts the US toll will double to 400,000 by the end of the year as schools and colleges reopen and cold weather sets in. A vaccine is unlikely to become widely available until 2021.

Worldwide, the virus has infected more than 31 million people and is closing in fast on 1 million deaths, with nearly 967,000 lives lost, by Johns Hopkins’ count, though the real numbers are believed to be higher because of gaps in testing and reporting.

A woman passes a fence outside Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery adorned with tributes to victims of COVID-19, May 28, 2020, in New York (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Critics say the statistics expose the Trump administration’s failure to meet its sternest test ahead of the November 3 election.

“Due to Donald Trump’s lies and incompetence in the past six months, (we) have seen one of the gravest losses of American life in history,” his Democratic rival Joe Biden charged Monday.

Reacting to the bleak new milestone, the top Democrat in Congress, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, blamed the soaring toll squarely on “Trump’s deadly disinformation and negligence — including his cover-up of the catastrophic nature of the virus.”

Trump, for his part, insists that the United States is already “rounding the corner” — while betting on the swift approval of a COVID-19 vaccine to boost his reelection chances.

Reporters with the Xinhua Press Agency watch as US President Donald Trump is seen on a video screen remotely addressing the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 22, 2020, at UN headquarters. (AP/Mary Altaffer)

“We will distribute a vaccine, we will defeat the virus, we will end the pandemic, and we will enter a new era of unprecedented prosperity, cooperation and peace,” Trump said in a recorded message to the UN General Assembly earlier Tuesday.

But most experts argue that betting on vaccines is not a viable strategy.

Without adhering to masks, distancing and contact-tracing, and without ramping up testing, tens of thousands more could still die before life returns to normal in the US.

“Covid will be the third leading cause of death this year in the US,” tweeted Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) under former president Barack Obama.

Only the number of people who died from heart disease and cancer will be higher.

“The staggering death toll from the virus is a reflection of a failed national response, but it’s not too late to turn it around,” said Frieden.

It’s likely that the US actually crossed 200,000 deaths in July, said Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Institute, citing the excess overall mortality rate.

The initial lack of tests led to an undercount of the virus’ toll.

“We are the outlier to have been caught totally flat-footed with no testing, and just not learning from mistakes,” Topol said.

“We never got adequate suppression, and yet we’re opening everything and trying to make believe that everything is just great.”

Medics transfer a patient on a stretcher from an ambulance outside the emergency at Coral Gables Hospital in Coral Gables, near Miami, on July 30, 2020. (Chandan Khanna/AFP)

Trump downplayed the threat early on, advanced unfounded notions about the behavior of the virus, promoted unproven or dangerous treatments, complained that too much testing was making the US look bad, and disdained masks, turning face coverings into a political issue.

On April 10, the president predicted the US wouldn’t see 100,000 deaths. That milestone was reached May 27.

Nowhere was the lack of leadership seen as more crucial than in testing, a key to breaking the chain of contagion.

“We have from the very beginning lacked a national testing strategy,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, a Johns Hopkins University public health researcher. “For reasons I can’t truly fathom, we’ve refused to develop one.”

Critics have also pointed to uneven adoption of public health measures by states. They say Trump abdicated responsibility and left it to the state governors to deal with the crisis and decide on lockdowns.

In many cities, students have gone back to school virtually, the indoor areas of bars and restaurants remain closed, and mask use is up.

People take part in a rally protesting against unsafe and inequitable school reopening, Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, in New York. (AP/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

But hotspots are still flaring up, currently in the Midwest and on college campuses that returned to in-person learning.

“We had a crazy quilt of responses across the country that totally confused the average person,” William Schaffner, a health policy professor at Vanderbilt University, told AFP.

“We needed a unified, coherent, strong, national response.”

Dr. Cedric Dark, an emergency physician at Baylor College of Medicine in hard-hit Houston, said that before the crisis, “people used to look to the United States with a degree of reverence. For democracy. For our moral leadership in the world. Supporting science and using technology to travel to the moon.”

“All the world’s leaders took the same test, and some have succeeded and some have failed,” said Dark. “In the case of our country, we failed miserably.”

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