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White House Focuses On Metric Painting Rosier Picture Of Pandemic

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As the number of coronavirus cases started spiking again this month, the White House keyed in on a different number, one that paints a more rosy picture of the pandemic.

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KAYLEIGH MCENANY: We're seeing the fatality rate in this country come down. That is a very good thing.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: People don't talk about that too much, but we have one of the lowest mortality rates. Some people say we have the lowest mortality rate - fatality rate sometimes they say.

SHAPIRO: What President Trump and his press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, are talking about is the case fatality rate, the percentage of people with the virus who end up dying. But as NPR's Tamara Keith reports, focusing on this metric has both public health and political problems.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: At his first coronavirus press briefing in nearly three months yesterday, President Trump came armed with his favorite measurement of the pandemic and a brightly colored chart.

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TRUMP: Our case fatality rate has continued to decline and is lower than the European Union and almost everywhere else in the world.

KEITH: In an interview on "Fox News Sunday With Chris Wallace," Trump asked his staff to bring him the chart.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY WITH CHRIS WALLACE")

CHRIS WALLACE: Seventy-five thousand cases a day.

TRUMP: Show me the death chart.

WALLACE: Well, I don't have the death chart...

TRUMP: Well, the death chart is much more important.

WALLACE: But I can tell you the death chart is a thousand cases a day.

KEITH: But this isn't a metric public health experts have been using because it's a moving target. Case numbers are rising fast. Deaths are a lagging indicator, running several weeks behind.

TOM INGLESBY: Measuring kind of mortality rates at any given day is not a reliable way of communicating about this pandemic.

KEITH: Dr. Tom Inglesby is director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. He says by a more direct measure - the sheer number of deaths, even adjusted for population size - the U.S. is not doing well compared to other countries around the world.

INGLESBY: What national leaders have the obligation to tell people is just the direct truth. If we give them a false sense that things are getting better when they're not, then they're going to make decisions that increase the risk of transmission. And they're also going to stop having confidence in the information they're being given.

KEITH: Focusing on the fatality rate glosses over other serious problems with coronavirus says Dr. David Relman who specializes in immunology and infectious diseases at Stanford. He says about 20% of people get really sick with potential long-term health consequences. Coronavirus is stressing the medical system, and as long as it's uncontained, the virus is holding the economy back, too. So as he sees it, talking about the case fatality rate is counterproductive.

DAVID RELMAN: What you do instead when you pull out one little piece and dangle it in front of people is to confuse and distract and undermine the overall message.

KEITH: The message that people need to take this virus seriously and take precautions. For President Trump, accentuating the positive may have short-term political benefits, but there are longer term risks.

MIKE DUHAIME: I think it was a mistake early on to be dismissive of the seriousness of it and that it was just going to go away.

KEITH: Mike DuHaime is a Republican strategist, and he gives Trump credit for coming out yesterday and treating it seriously, telling people to wear masks and avoid crowds.

DUHAIME: In order for him to succeed here politically, his credibility has to be as strong as possible.

KEITH: And Trump's credibility has taken a major hit through this. According to the latest Pew poll, only 30% of Americans trust Trump to get the facts right on the virus.

DUHAIME: At the end of the day, he just needs to do a good job. I know that sounds simplistic, but when you're an incumbent running for reelection, doing a good job is really the most important thing. And to this point, people haven't seen him do a good job on what they think is the greatest challenge of his presidency.

KEITH: DuHaime says people are checking the numbers every day - the number of new cases in their city and state, the number of hospitalizations and deaths. The numbers are all readily available and easier to find than the case fatality rate. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.