WASHINGTON >> President Donald Trump is making a baseless claim of surging suicides if the U.S. economy remains mostly shut due to the spread of the coronavirus. There’s no evidence that suicides will rise dramatically, let alone surpass potential coronavirus deaths. Historically in a crisis, suicides tend to diminish as society pulls together in a common purpose.
Trump’s statement was one of several that showed him to be an outlier among top public officials as the coronavirus crisis deepens. A look at claims from Trump and his coronavirus task force and how they compare with the facts:
TRUMP: “I mean, we have never closed the country before, and we have had some pretty bad flus, and we have had some pretty bad viruses.” — Fox News virtual town hall Tuesday.
THE FACTS: He’s making a bad comparison.
The new coronavirus is not the same as the annual flu, because it’s a disease that hadn’t been seen before in humans. For that reason, human populations lack immunity to the virus. It can spread unchecked, except by measures such as social distancing. It isn’t clear what the death rate from COVID-19 ultimately will be. But Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health has suggested it might be around 1%, which is far less than some other viruses, but still 10 times greater than the average flu season.
TRUMP, on one reason why he wants to reopen the nation for business soon, even if it means more coronavirus infections: “You’re going to have suicides by the thousands.” — Fox News town hall.
TRUMP: “People get tremendous anxiety and depression, and you have suicides over things like this when you have terrible economies. You have death. Probably and — I mean, definitely — would be in far greater numbers than the numbers that we’re talking about with regard to the virus.” — news briefing Monday.
THE FACTS: There’s no evidence that suicides will rise dramatically if nationwide social-distancing guidelines that have closed many businesses and are expected to trigger a spike in unemployment stay in place.
“It is not a foregone conclusion that we will see increased suicide rates,” said Dr. Christine Moutier of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
While there’s no way to predict this time around, historically “we actually tend in most instances to see suicide rates diminish” during times of national crisis such as war or natural disasters, she said. Among the theories is that society pulls together during duress.
Overall, the nation’s suicide rate has been rising in recent years, for a variety of reasons including the opioid epidemic. But the even higher suicide rate seen during the Great Depression of the 1930s fell sharply with the onset of World War II. More recently, a 2017 study found fewer suicides than had been expected during the Great Recession of 2007-2009.
That said, the stress and anxiety of the current crisis are a concern for everyone’s health, including people with mental health disorders. Health experts are encouraging people to keep socially connected while they’re physically apart — maintaining vitally important ties with family and friends to combat loneliness. And Moutier praised the federal government’s expansion of telemedicine during the current coronavirus crisis, allowing more people access to mental health services without having to leave their homes.
Trump says he wants to assess whether to reopen the country for business at the end of the current 15-day period of recommended closures, or March 30. He said Tuesday he’d love to have the country opened back up by Easter, which is April 12.
Top health officials have cautioned that it’s not clear if the national call for 15 days of social distancing will be enough, something that partly depends on how many people obey. Some of the country’s hardest-hit areas have implemented tougher restrictions as the virus continues to spread.
“There’s a strong and understandable desire to return to better times and a functioning economy. But it should not be lost on anyone that there’s no such thing as a functioning economy and society so long as covid-19 continues to spread uncontrolled in our biggest cities,” Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, tweeted Monday.
AMBASSADOR DEBORAH BIRX, coordinator for Trump’s coronavirus task force: “In the last eight days, we’ve done more testing than South Korea.” — Fox News town hall.
THE FACTS: While the acceleration of U.S. testing is welcome news, the comparison with South Korea isn’t very illuminating.
For one, the United States is a much bigger country than South Korea, with a population of about 330 million compared to around 50 million.
As of the middle of the day Tuesday, the U.S. had nearly 50,000 cases of COVID-19, compared to around 9,000 for South Korea, according to the Johns Hopkins pandemic tracker.
The two countries are also at different stages in their outbreaks. Daily case counts are rapidly rising in the U.S., where the coronavirus struck later on. In South Korea, the curve is leveling off.
South Korea’s coronavirus response has been marked by an emphasis on widespread testing that earned global praise. However, even in that country, the government is still stressing social distancing measures because of worries the outbreak could pick up again.
TRUMP: “Clinical trials in New York will begin … for existing drugs that may prove effective against the virus. … The hydroxychloroquine and the Z-Pak, I think as a combination, probably, is looking very, very good. And it’s going to be distributed. … And I think a lot of people are going to be — hopefully — they’re going to be very happy with the results.” — news briefing Monday.
THE FACTS: Although research studies are beginning on using the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine —- New York’s governor has promised they would start this week — scientists urge caution about whether the drugs will live up to Trump’s promises. It’s also not clear if FDA had yet approved studying the two-drug “Z-pak” combination.
Dr. Michelle Gong, a critical care chief at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center, told a podcast with the Journal of the American Medical Association Monday that it is imperative for doctors to do careful studies of drugs like chloroquine to make sure they actually work — rather than just administering them to patients because they have nothing else to offer. Without that proof, “it is very easy for us to do more harm,” she cautioned.
So far there is very little data to go on, mostly anecdotal reports from some other countries. But test-tube studies in laboratories suggest the drugs may interfere with the coronavirus being able to enter cells.
Of concern, U.S. cardiologists last week got a warning from their colleagues in China to be alert for side effects in heart patients.
And in Arizona, an older couple experienced disastrous results when they took an additive used to clean fish tanks, chloroquine phosphate. The husband died and his wife was in critical condition. That prompted a major Phoenix health system to warn the public against self-medicating.
Trump’s mention of a “Z-pak” is a reference to azithromycin, an antibiotic. Antibiotics kill bacteria not viruses, but people severely ill with viral pneumonia sometimes develop secondary bacterial infections. When there are signs of that, hospitals already are using antibiotics — it’s part of standard supportive care for severe pneumonia.