Back in early February, the U.S. Army predicted that 80,000 to 150,000 people could die as a result of the covid-19 outbreak, as evidenced by an unclassified briefing published by the Daily Beast this morning. That range now falls below the White House task force’s latest projection of 100,000 to 240,000 deaths, but the awareness of the potential toll contrasts President Trump’s lackadaisical approach to the crisis in the following days and weeks. In late February, he said that China’s coronavirus emergency was “going to go away,” and he has consistently downplayed the severity of the crisis by comparing covid-19 to the flu, and in early March, he told Sean Hannity that he had a “hunch” that the WHO’s estimate of a 3.4 percent mortality rate was “false,” and that most people would recover with mild symptoms.
The Army categorized that outcome as a “black swan” event, a rare calamity, which the Daily Beast claims is “often understood as an unlikely one.” In their most dire scenario, 80,000 to 150,000 deaths would be the result if the medical community seriously underestimated the mortality rate. It correctly stated that the virus could be transmitted easily by asymptomatic individuals. The document predicted that up to 80 million Americans could be infected. Except, the Daily Beast points out, the Army doesn’t seem to have done much with its own forecast, even to safeguard itself, waiting until early March to obtain test kits. While the Army Corps of Engineers is now reportedly looking to convert 114 sites into makeshift hospitals, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said earlier this month that the military lacks the staff, training, and equipment to do so. At that point, he and Joint Staff Surgeon Paul Friedrichs said that the Department of Defense had issued virtually no request for help in dealing with the outbreak.
The case-fatality ratio of covid-19 is unclear, as scientists are factoring in asymptomatic or mild cases which go unreported. The World Health Organization’s Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus observed in March that 3.4 percent of people with reported cases have died — which many have interpreted to be the mortality rate — although researchers from the Imperial College of London recently estimated that the mortality rate could be as low as .66 percent when controlling for lower-risk younger people who are less likely to need hospitalization. Time will also be required to account for deaths that are related to the outbreak, such as people who die from a separate preventable cause because they were unable to get medical treatment at an overcrowded hospital.
The Daily Beast confirms that the document was seen by high-ranking officials in the U.S. Northern Command and of the Department of the Army’s Pentagon offices. It is unclear whether the briefing made it to the White House.
Army officials have not responded to Gizmodo’s request to verify the authenticity of the document.
The severity of the crisis seems to have dawned on the president at some point in the past week (precisely, in the intervening nine days since he stated that he’d like to see the United States “opened up” again by Easter). In an about-face on Sunday, he extended social distancing guidelines by 30 days. Two days ago, in a press conference where Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx put the latest minimum death toll at 100,000, Trump said that such measures are “a matter of life and death.”
New projections come in, and he routinely ignores them. Namely, state officials’ predictions of severe ventilator shortages. Appearing to take the problem seriously last week, he accused GM of “wasting time” in producing the life-saving equipment (although the New York Times has reported that the federal government was completely uncommunicative about its needs while GM scrambled to convert its plants). Presently, he is lashing out on Twitter at the “complainers” who “are never satisfied” with medical equipment supplied by the federal government, saying that they “should have been stockpiled up and ready long before the crisis hit.” They probably should have known to get their own intelligence.