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President Donald Trump speaks during an NBC News Town Hall, at Perez Art Museum Miami on Oct. 15, 2020, in Miami. (AP) President Donald Trump speaks during an NBC News Town Hall, at Perez Art Museum Miami on Oct. 15, 2020, in Miami. (AP)

President Donald Trump speaks during an NBC News Town Hall, at Perez Art Museum Miami on Oct. 15, 2020, in Miami. (AP)

Victoria Knight
By Victoria Knight October 21, 2020

Trump says he prevented 2 million COVID-19 deaths. Where does he get that number?

If Your Time is short

  • President Donald Trump keeps saying his efforts to lock down the country and implement restrictions for those traveling from China saved 2 million lives.
     
  • The number is taken from a model that predicted how many people would die if no mitigation measures were put in place and people continued their lives normally. Experts said it is unlikely that Americans would have taken no steps to protect themselves.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed to have saved 2 million lives from COVID-19 through his actions to combat the disease.

He made the assertion again during the NBC News town hall on Oct. 15 that replaced the second presidential debate.

"But we were expected to lose, if you look at the original charts from original doctors who are respected by everybody, 2,200,000 people," Trump said. "We saved 2 million people," he added.

He mentioned the same ballpark figure during a Sept. 15 ABC News town hall and posted a tweet about it on Oct. 13.

Others in the Trump administration have also pointed to the 2.2 million figure. Vice President Mike Pence referenced it during the vice presidential debate on Oct. 7. So did Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar during a Sept. 20 "Meet the Press" television interview.

Where did this number come from? And is there any truth to the idea that Trump is responsible for saving 2 million lives from COVID-19? Since Trump continues to use it to claim success, we decided to look into it.

What we know about the ‘2 million’

The White House and the Trump presidential campaign did not respond to our request for evidence supporting the idea that roughly 2 million lives were spared because of the administration's actions.

The figure appears to have been mentioned by the president first during a March 29 White House coronavirus task force press briefing, when Trump and Dr. Deborah Birx, task force coordinator, explained they were asking Americans to stay home from mid-March through the end of April, because mathematical models showed 1.6 million to 2.2 million people could die from COVID-19. 

The warning stemmed from a paper authored by Neil Ferguson, an epidemiology professor at Imperial College London. He modeled how COVID-19 can spread through a population in different scenarios, including what would happen if no interventions were put in place and people continued to live their daily lives as normal.

In the paper, Ferguson wrote, "In total, in an unmitigated epidemic, we would predict approximately 510,000 deaths in [Great Britain] and 2.2 million in the US."

Ferguson did not respond to our request to talk through the study with him. But in a July email interview with HuffPost, he said Trump’s boast of having saved 2 million lives isn’t true, because the pandemic isn’t over.

Andrea Bertozzi, a mathematics professor at UCLA, said it was important to remember the 2.2 million figure was derived from a modeling scenario that would almost certainly never happen — which is that neither the government nor individuals would change their behavior at all in light of COVID-19.

The study didn’t mean to say 2.2 million people were absolutely going to die, but rather to say, "Hold on, if we let this thing run its course, bad things could happen," said Bertozzi. Indeed, the results from the study did cause government leaders in both the U.S. and the United Kingdom to implement social distancing measures.

Experts also pointed out that the U.S. has the highest COVID-19 death toll of any country in the world — more than 220,000 people — and among the highest death rates, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

"I don’t think we can say we’ve prevented 2 million deaths, because people are still dying," said Justin Lessler, an associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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In some instances when using the 2 million estimate, Trump and others in his administration cited the China travel restrictions for saving lives, while other times they’ve credited locking down the economy. We’ll explore whether either statement holds water.

Did travel restrictions do anything?

Trump implemented travel restrictions for some people traveling from China beginning Feb. 2 and from Europe on March 11. But experts say and reports show the restrictions don’t appear to have had much effect because they were put in place too late and had too many holes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the first cases of coronavirus in the U.S. arrived in mid-January. So, since the travel bans were put in place after COVID-19 was already spreading in the U.S., they weren’t effective, said Josh Michaud, associate director for global health policy at the KFF. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

A May study supports that assessment. The researchers found the risk of transmission from domestic air travel exceeded that of international travel in mid-March.

Many individuals also still traveled into the U.S. after the bans, according to separate investigations by The New York Times and the Associated Press.

Based on all this, experts said there isn’t evidence to support the idea that the travel restrictions were the principal intervention to reduce the transmission of COVID-19.

What about lockdowns?

On the other hand, the public health experts we talked to said multiple global and U.S.-focused studies show that lockdowns and implementing social distancing measures helped to contain the spread of the coronavirus and thus can be said to have prevented deaths.

However, Trump can’t take full credit for these so-called lockdown measures, which ranged from closing down all but essential businesses to implementing citywide curfews and statewide stay-at-home orders. On March 16, after being presented with the possibility of the national death tally rising to 2.2. million, the White House issued federal recommendations to limit activities that could transmit the COVID-19 virus. But these were just guidelines and were recommended to be in effect only through April 30.

Most credit for putting in place robust social distancing measures belongs to state and local government and public health officials, many of whom enacted stronger policies than those recommended by the White House, our experts said.

"I don’t think you can directly credit the federal government or the Trump administration with the shutdown orders," said Lessler. "The way our system works is that the power for public health policy lies with the state. And each state was making its own individual decision."

Some studies also explore the potential human costs of missed opportunities. If lockdowns had been implemented one or two weeks earlier than mid-March, for instance, which is when most of the U.S. started shutting down, researchers estimated that tens of thousands of American lives could have been saved. A model also shows that if almost everyone wore a mask in the U.S., tens of thousands of deaths from COVID-19 could have been prevented.  

Despite these scientific findings, Trump started encouraging states — even those with high transmission rates — to open back up in May, after the White House’s recommendations to slow the spread of COVID-19 expired. He has also questioned the efficacy of masks, said he wouldn’t issue a national mask mandate and instead left mask mandate decisions up to states and local jurisdictions. 

Our ruling

President Trump is claiming that if not for his efforts, there would have been 2 million more deaths in the U.S. from COVID-19.

But that 2 million number is taken from a model that shows what would happen without any mitigation measures — that is, if citizens had continued their daily lives as usual, and governments did nothing. Experts said that wouldn’t have happened in real life.

And while lockdowns and social distancing have indeed been proven to prevent COVID-19 illness and deaths, credit for that doesn’t go solely to Trump. The White House issued federal recommendations asking Americans to stay home, but much stronger social distancing measures were enforced by states.

Travel restrictions implemented by Trump perhaps helped hold down transmission in the context of broader efforts, but on their own, they don’t seem to have significantly reduced the transmission rate of the coronavirus.

We rate this claim Mostly False.

Our Sources

ABC News, "Trump’s ABC News Town Hall: Full Transcript," Sept. 15, 2020

The Associated Press, "Trump’s Early Coronavirus Ban on Travelers From China Was Full of Holes," July 4, 2020

BBC, "Coronavirus: Prof Neil Ferguson Quits Government Role After 'Undermining' Lockdown," May 6, 2020

Cell, "Coast-to-Coast Spread of SARS-CoV-2 during the Early Epidemic in the United States," May 28, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Evidence for Limited Early Spread of COVID-19 Within the United States, January-February 2020," June 5, 2020

CNBC, "Trump says face masks are ‘patriotic’ after months of largely resisting wearing one," July 20, 2020

Email interview with Jeffrey Shaman, professor of environmental health and infectious disease, Columbia University, Sept. 22, 2020

Email interview with Helen Jenkins, assistant professor of biostatistics, Boston University, Sept. 22, 2020

Health Affairs, "Strong Social Distancing Measures in the United States Reduced the COVID-19 Growth Rate," May 14, 2020

The Hill, "Trump says he won't issue national mask mandate," July 17, 2020

 

HuffPost, "Scientist Behind Coronavirus Study Contradicts Trump Claim That He Saved 2 Million Lives," July 5, 2020

Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team, "Report 9: Impact of Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs) to Reduce COVID-19 Mortality and Healthcare Demand," March 16, 2020

The Independent, "Architect of UK’s Coronavirus Lockdown Neil Ferguson Says He Has Never Met Boris Johnson," July 31, 2020

Johns Hopkins University, "Coronavirus Resource Center," accessed Oct. 20, 2020

MedRxiv preprint, "Differential Effects of Intervention Timing on COVID-19 Spread in the United States," May 29, 2020

MedRxiv preprint, "Global Assessment of the Relationship Between Government Response Measures and COVID-19 Deaths," July 6, 2020

MedRxiv preprint "COVID-19 Epidemic Severity Is Associated With Timing of Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions," Sept. 18, 2020

NBC News, "Full HHS Sec. Azar: 'We've Seen Incredible Progress' in Fighting Covid," Sept. 20, 2020

The New York Times, "430,000 People Have Traveled From China to U.S. Since Coronavirus Surfaced," April 4, 2020

The New York Times, "White House Takes New Line After Dire Report on Death Toll," March 16, 2020

The New York Times, "Behind the Virus Report That Jarred the U.S. and the U.K. to Action," April 2, 2020

Newsweek, "Trump's 30-Day Plan to Slow Coronavirus Spread Is Ending — Here's Where America Stands," April 30, 2020

NPR, "'Enormous and Tragic': U.S. Has Lost More Than 200,000 People to COVID-19," Sept. 22, 2020

NPR, "Widespread Use Of Face Masks Could Save Tens Of Thousands Of Lives, Models Project," July 3, 2020

Phone interview with Andrea Bertozzi, distinguished professor of mathematics and mechanical and aerospace engineering at UCLA, Sept. 23, 2020

Phone interview with Justin Lessler, associate professor of epidemiology, Johns Hopkins University, Sept. 23, 2020

Phone interview with Josh Michaud, associate director of global health policy, KFF, Sept. 23, 2020

PNAS, "The Challenges of Modeling and Forecasting the Spread of COVID-19," July 2, 2020

Rev.com, "Donald Trump NBC Town Hall Transcript October 15," Oct. 15, 2020

Rev.com, "Kamala Harris & Mike Pence 2020 Vice Presidential Debate Transcript," Oct. 7, 2020

Twitter, Donald Trump tweet, Oct. 13, 2020

The White House, "Proclamation on Suspension of Entry as Immigrants and Nonimmigrants of Persons Who Pose a Risk of Transmitting 2019 Novel Coronavirus," Jan. 31, 2020

The White House, "Proclamation — Suspension of Entry as Immigrants and Nonimmigrants of Certain Additional Persons Who Pose a Risk of Transmitting 2019 Novel Coronavirus," March 11, 2020

The White House, "The President’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America," March 16, 2020

The White House, "Remarks by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Members of the Coronavirus Task Force in Press Briefing," March 16, 2020

The White House, "Remarks by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Members of the Coronavirus Task Force in Press Briefing," March 29, 2020

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