The press needs to stop touting Trump's favorite pandemic projection model — it's useless

The mythical bell-shaped curves

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Making a small gesture to concede the grim realities of our still-growing pandemic, Trump this week admitted that 100,000 Americans will likely die from the coronavius. The White House appears to be grudgingly abandoning the overly optimistic narrative from April that the worst will soon be behind us and that normalcy will return to the country, and the economy. The move comes as Trump's preferred projection model for the pandemic also drastically revised its estimate upwards.

The model, produced by researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), had been presented as the gold standard for trying to understand the pandemic's path, featuring bell-shaped curves, which suggested hospitalizations and deaths nationwide would drop off nearly as quickly as they rose. Together, Trump and IHME told a pleasing tale about how the pandemic wasn't going to be as deadly as some experts had feared.

The White House and the news media constantly touted IHME's findings, which for weeks predicted 60,000 U.S. deaths by August. The now-famous model has been referenced more than 700 times on cable news since April 1, according to TVeyes.com,

But there’s a signature problem with IHME's latest estimate. Last week it predicted 72,000 deaths by Aug. 4 —72,000 Americans will be dead from coronavirus by the end of this week. Those promised bell-shaped curves, signaling the pandemic abrupt ending, never materialized.

By contrast, a model produced by the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which features detailed state-by-state information that includes one-week and six-week forecasts, predicts a U.S. death toll of 100,000 as quickly as the end of this month. And the COVID-19 Projections model forecasts as many as 166,000 deaths from COVID-19 by Aug. 4.

Note that in late March, IHME projected the total New York City death toll for the pandemic would be 10,200 by early August. Today, the city's current death toll stands at 13,000, with a "probable" death toll closer to 19,000, with three months to go until August.

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That's why California Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu recently tweeted that Trump needs to stop relying on IHME's work. The same should also be said for the press.

On Monday, the University of Washington model once again updated its estimate, nearly doubling the projected death count, claiming the new number would likely be 135,000 dead by August.

Following the White House's lead in April, news outlets touted IHME as the perhaps the best tool for peering into the future of the pandemic to get an idea of how long it will keep the economy paralyzed. By leaning so heavily on the University of Washington model, the press is giving news consumers an unrealistic view of the public health crisis.

The IHME media coverage matters because Trump and the White House elevated the work weeks ago specifically because of its aggressively optimistic view of the pandemic — a view of America returning to 'normal' by the summer when the virus would have essentially run its course. In other words, Trump has been using IHME for purely political purposes in order to paint a picture of America on the mend, and the worst of the coronavirus being behind us. Trump adviser/son-in-law Jared Kushner actually went on television last week and claimed coronavirus in the U.S. had been a "success story."

“I fear the White House is looking for data that tells them a story they want to hear, and so they look to the model with the lowest projection of death," Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Medicine, recently told Politico.

Indeed, when the IHME model in April predicted 60,000 deaths, Trump was quick to tout it. “It looks like we’ll be at about a 60,000 mark, which is 40,000 less than the lowest number thought of,” he said during a news briefing on April 19, discussing death toll estimates. He added the next day that “the low number was supposed to be 100,000 people. We could end up at 50 to 60.”

Not even close. Suddenly with the University of Washington model proving useless, Trump no longer wants to be the face of the crisis and has stepped away from his daily briefings.

Why has the once-respected IHME model been so wrong? Researchers assumed the White House and the federal government would provide national leadership on the pandemic. Instead, Trump has essentially told states to follow whatever criteria they want to reopen states, which will lead to a clear increase in the number of deaths. “We had presumed, perhaps naively, that given the magnitude of the epidemic, most states would stick to their social distancing until the end of May,” IHME Director Christopher Murray  said. “That is not happening.”

For weeks, Trump touted his favorite model because it told a story he wanted to tell — the pandemic all goes away by early summer! That's clearly not going to happen, leaving Trump with a crisis that has completely overwhelmed him.

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📁 GOOD STUFF:

If you want to learn more on the controversial IHME model and why it has missed the mark so badly, check out the interesting, in-depth read from STAT News:

According to a critique by researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Imperial College London, published this week in Annals of Internal Medicine, the IHME projections are based “on a statistical model with no epidemiologic basis.”

🎸 FUN STUFF — BECAUSE WE ALL NEED A BREAK

Brandon Ratcliff, "Living for the City"

Talk about having good influences. 25-year-old singer, songwriter Brandon Ratcliff is the son of Suzanne Cox, part of the famous country/bluegrass music Cox Family dynasty. (See: O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack.) Growing up in northern Louisiana, Ratcliff was also a Stevie Wonder fan. Here, he cover's Wonder's iconic, 1973 masterpiece, "Living for the City," one of the R&B cross-over pop hits to explicitly address systemic racism in the U.S.

Is it a little odd to have a young white singer interpreting Wonder's soul classic, especially given the topic and Wonder’s first-person narration? A bit, yes. But Ratcliff's musically stripped down version does such a masterful job infusing the song’s urgency with his own laid back southern style, that it provides a welcomed added texture, as Wonder’s message continues to resonate nearly half-a-century later.

His hair is long, his feet are hard and gritty
He spends his life walkin' the streets of New York city
He's almost dead from breathin' in air pollution
He tried to vote but to him there's no solution
Living just enough, just enough for the city