With the U.S. experiencing a major dip in the number of daily deaths as the omicron variant wave runs its course, President Joe Biden has repeatedly boasted that his “approach has brought down COVID deaths by 90%.” That figure is accurate, but experts say the dip is largely attributable to a number of factors outside the president’s control.
There has been a 92% drop in COVID-19 deaths, when comparing the seven-day average since the day Biden took office with the average as of June 20.
As the omicron variant runs its course, virtually every country in the world has recently experienced a steep decline in COVID-19 deaths. In fact, since the day of Biden’s inauguration, the seven-day rolling average of daily deaths per 100,000 residents worldwide has dropped 89.4%, which suggests Biden’s policy is not somehow unique. Experts say it is the disease, the emergence of variants, the rollout of vaccines and immunity gained from prior infection that are primarily responsible for the peaks and valleys in the number of deaths worldwide since COVID-19 emerged.
Biden also launched this talking point during a lull in COVID-19 deaths, glossing over the fact that there have been two major waves of COVID-19 — from the highly transmissible delta and omicron variants — which caused large spikes in the number of deaths during Biden’s presidency.
Upon taking office in January 2021, Biden initiated an effort to encourage Americans to get one of the newly authorized COVID-19 vaccines. He has promoted effective new treatments, and he has been a consistent advocate for masking in appropriate situations. Experts say those are all positive things, but Biden takes too much credit when he says his policies are responsible for a 90% drop in COVID-19 deaths, as he has done repeatedly.
“My approach has brought down COVID deaths by 90%,” Biden boasted on Twitter on June 14.
Biden repeated it in a speech the same day, saying the administration “brought down COVID deaths by 90%.”
“The vaccines, treatments and other tools my administration has made widely available are protecting the American people from serious illness, keeping them out of the hospital, and bringing down daily deaths due to COVID-19 by 90%,” Biden said on June 17.
The seven-day moving average of daily deaths on the day Biden took office was 3,167, but it has fallen to 266 as of June 20, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a 92% drop. Data compiled by Our World in Data show similar steep declines in COVID-19 deaths in the United Kingdom (96%,) Germany (93%), Italy (90%), Canada (82%) and India (90%) over the same period.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
While that’s a significant decline in the U.S., as the graphic above shows, the drop in deaths has not been linear. Deaths from COVID-19 spiked in the fall of 2021 due to the delta variant, and deaths spiked again in early 2022 as the omicron variant swept the nation. From the start of the pandemic in early 2020 until Jan. 20, 2021, the day Biden assumed the presidency, there were 424,307 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. Since then, there have been more than 580,000 COVID-19 deaths. In other words, more COVID-19 deaths have occurred under Biden than under Trump.
That doesn’t mean Biden’s COVID-19 policy was less effective than Trump’s. For starters, coronavirus deaths didn’t start to emerge in large numbers until April 2020, so this is a comparison of nearly nine months under Trump with 17 months under Biden. As we have written, Trump regularly downplayed the risks of COVID-19, and former White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx has said better early mitigation efforts could have “decreased substantially” the number of deaths. Biden did credit Trump in December 2021, saying, “Thanks to the prior administration and our scientific community, America was one of the first countries to get the vaccine.”
But Biden took office in the early days of the vaccines. The very first vaccine doses had been rolled out in mid-December 2020, and by the date of Biden’s inauguration, just under 23 million doses had been administered. With few Americans vaccinated, the seven-day average of deaths reached its peak of the pandemic at 3,425 deaths on Jan. 13, 2021, seven days before Biden was inaugurated.
In the ensuing six months, as more than 300 million doses of vaccine were administered, the number of people dying from COVID-19 plummeted. By July 5, 2021, the seven-day average number of deaths was 213.
That’s slightly lower than the seven-day average now.
Though some anti-vaccine critics have noted that there have been more COVID-19 deaths since a vaccine first became available, the rate of death was much higher relative to the rate of cases before the vaccines became widely available in the spring of 2021, as we have written. The country was also ravaged by two highly transmissible variants, and after the vaccines became available, the death rates have been higher among unvaccinated people.
Experts say there is no question that vaccines have reduced the number of deaths in the U.S., and that inasmuch as Biden has promoted vaccine production and encouraged all Americans to get vaccinated, that has helped. According to a Commonwealth Fund analysis, if not for vaccines, there would have been more than 1 million more deaths in the U.S. by November 2021. But Biden’s vaccine efforts can’t get all the credit.
It’s “near impossible” to say a particular policy has led to a sharp drop in the death rate, Rachael Piltch-Loeb, a researcher and project director at the Harvard School of Public Health, told us via email. “The decline can largely be attributed to the level of immunity in the population. Vaccine uptake has been a huge contributing factor to the decline, as those who are vaccinated are far less likely to be hospitalized and die from COVID. Natural immunity has likely played a role as well though the quantification of this is less clear.”
Piltch-Loeb said the administration has done a few things to “promote this decline,” including “[f]ocusing on vaccine uptake, ongoing personal mitigation, and therapeutic options.”
“The administration’s promotion of vaccination, especially among communities through community outreach and a diversified outreach strategy to build trust [among those] who initially showed higher rates of vaccine hesitancy has been valuable and likely helped to reduce the death rate in some Black and Hispanic communities,” she said. “Continuing to promote N95/KN95 mask wearing especially among high risk individuals is hard to quantify but part of the approach, as well as simply trying to maintain mask wearing is a key part of mitigation overall. Additionally, making a therapeutic available, especially to high risk patients, can play a role. Efforts to make testing available and offset the cost of testing and vaccination are other aspects of the overall effort.”
And while Biden’s vaccination efforts could have affected vaccine uptake, the U.S. ranks 55th in the world in terms of the total number of vaccine doses administered per 100,000 population, according to the Washington Post. The percentage of the American population that has completed vaccination, 67%, lags behind most developed nations. By comparison, 83.6% and 81% of Canada’s and Japan’s populations, respectively, are fully vaccinated. The percentage of those in Britain, France, Germany and Italy who are fully vaccinated is in the mid-to-high 70s. It’s also worth noting that vaccination rates are lower in counties that voted for Trump, and whose residents are less likely to support Biden’s policies or heed his advice.
Overall, the U.S. has fared worse than most other countries in terms of COVID-19 deaths. Indeed, the U.S. ranks second worldwide in the number of deaths per 100,000 population, second only to Brazil, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
“I am dubious of all politicians taking credit for something like this,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert and a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told us via email. “When President Biden took office the vaccine campaign was in its infancy. It is the vaccines and the scientists and companies that created them, more than anything, that have been responsible for the decrease in deaths that we have seen.”
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