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- “Deaths per 100,000 people” is a public health metric used to quantify the intensity of an epidemic. In this case, it shows how many people have died from COVID-19 while controlling for countries’ populations.
- Although the U.S. is showing a lower number than countries such as Spain and Italy, various datasets indicate that, per capita, the U.S. has far more COVID-related deaths than does Germany and many other countries, including Canada, South Korea, Iran, Russia, Poland and Switzerland.
Following weeks of criticism over his administration’s COVID-19 response, President Donald Trump pulled out new statistics to claim the nation is actually among the best in the world in fighting the lethal coronavirus.
"Germany and the United States are the two best in deaths per 100,000 people, which, frankly, to me, that's perhaps the most important number there is," Trump said at a May 11 Rose Garden press briefing.
We’ve followed the numbers closely on this. Germany has won praise for its early and aggressive testing-and-tracing response to the pandemic. The United States has not.
With that in mind, we wondered: Are these countries so similar? And are they really the "two best"?
We contacted the White House to find out the basis for the president’s statement and never heard back. But of all the datasets tracking COVID-19 deaths, none supports anything near Trump’s assertion.
And when you look at the numbers on which experts rely, Trump’s claim is at best misleading. The United States’ rate of COVID deaths per capita is better than many countries — but in no universe is it one of "the two best."
Deaths per 100,000 people — the per capita metric Trump used — is generally considered a valuable public health measure that helps quantify the intensity of an epidemic. In this situation, it tracks how many people have died from COVID-19 in relation to countries’ populations.
It’s an imperfect measure, to be sure. Globally, COVID-19 deaths are typically undercounted, since countries aren’t testing all the people who have been infected, let alone counting all deaths attributed to the virus. And comparing the numbers gets trickier when you place countries like Germany, which has tested large swaths of the population, against the United States, which has not.
But even when comparing apples with oranges, Trump’s claim inflated just how well the United States has performed.
"It is not supported by the facts," said Jennifer Kates, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
We looked at four credible estimates, all of which were recommended by health researchers: Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus death count, along with global estimates published by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Our World in Data and Worldometer. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.)
The Hopkins death count estimates that, in the United States, 24.66 people per 100,000 have died of COVID-19, as of May 12. In Germany, meanwhile, the rate is 9.24 — meaning the American death rate is 2.5 times that of Germany. And that’s only part of the issue.
When compared with many other countries — including Canada, South Korea, Iran, Russia, Poland and Switzerland — the U.S. numbers don’t do very well. "We have higher levels of deaths per capita than [those] countries and many others," said Jeffrey Shaman, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University.
That’s true no matter the dataset. The United States performs better than countries like Spain and Italy, but still far worse than Germany and worse than numerous other countries.
In fact, per Our World in Data’s estimates, the United States’ rate of COVID-19 deaths per capita isn’t just worse than what we see in countries like Canada and South Korea. It’s also worse than the global average. As of May 12, 36.66 per million people had died of COVID for the entire world — in the United States, it was 243.76 deaths per million people.
There is another way to look at the numbers, Kates said. Instead of the cumulative number of people who have died per capita since the pandemic began, one can consider whether the United States is performing better when it comes to recent deaths. If American numbers were similar to that of Germany within a specific window of time, it would suggest that the United States is approaching a similar point in efforts to alleviate the crisis.
Even then, the United States falls short. As of May 12, numerous countries, including Canada, France, Germany, Russia and Italy, had fewer daily deaths per capita based on a seven-day average than did the U.S. — suggesting that the risks here are still greater than they are in those nations.
So, big picture? It is misleading to suggest the United States and Germany are in the same league, especially when it comes to COVID deaths per capita. It’s flat-out untrue to suggest that the United States is one of the "two best," when countless other nations are seeing far lower death rates per 100,000 people.
"The claim is false," Shaman said.
Trump claimed that, when it comes to COVID-19 fatalities, "Germany and the United States are the two best in deaths per 100,000 people."
This is untrue. While the metric Trump highlighted is important, there are countless countries performing far better than the United States on COVID deaths per capita. And it is misleading at best to categorize the American fatality count in the same group as Germany’s; Germany’s numbers are better.
We rate this claim False.
Remarks by President Donald Trump, May 11, 2020.
Email interview with Jennifer Kates, senior vice president and director of Global Health & HIV Policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, May 12, 2020.
Email interview with Lawrence Gostin, a law professor at Georgetown University, May 12, 2020.
Email interview with Jeffrey Shaman, professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University, May 12, 2020.
Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, "Mortality Analyses," accessed May 12, 2020.
Kaiser Family Foundation, "COVID-19 Tracker," May 12, 2020.
Our World in Data, "Total Confirmed COVID-19 Deaths Per Million People," accessed May 12, 2020.
Worldometer, "Reported Cases and Deaths by Country, Territory, or Conveyance," accessed May 12, 2020.
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