By November, Dan Forest may regret waging a remote campaign in which virtual events inevitably find their way into the hands of progressive opposition group American Bridge, which has been bird-dogging Forest for months, and then to YouTube, and then into reporters’ inboxes, with the LG’s next Greatest Hit cued up. 

Last weekend, Forest was speaking via Facebook Live to the North Carolina Federation of Young Republicans, laying down some deep thoughts on the pandemic

“We’ve still had more deaths to the flu this year than we have had COVID-19,” he told them. “There’s been about three times more deaths for HIV/AIDS. Remember, that was a pandemic at one time, and it still has no vaccine. This one’s bad. But it hasn’t hit the extremes of other pandemics yet. So keep them all in perspective.”

Back up a second. Dan Forest has no fucking clue what the AIDS crisis was like, does he?

Let’s do some math, shall we?

As of today, the U.S. has logged more than 60,000 COVID-19 deaths, which is, for perspective, more in four months than we lost in the two decades of the Vietnam war. This weekend, the death toll was around 55,000. 

That is, granted, a disaster that betrays the incompetence of the administration to which Forest proclaims his undying fealty. But three times 55,000 is 165,000. And at least 700,000 Americans have died of AIDS since the CDC first started paying attention in 1981.

That’s about 13 times the number of those who had died of COVID-19 when Forest spoke this weekend, not three.   

In fact, in just the first 20 years of the AIDS epidemic, there were way more than three times as many deaths from AIDS as from COVID-19 this year. In large part because of the Christian right’s indifference/outright hostility toward the plight of the gay men, between 1981 and 2001, about 450,000 Americans died from AIDS, and for most of that period, the federal government looked the other way because, you know, anal sex and sinners and such. It wasn’t one of our shining moments.

The good news is that since the late ’90s, with the introduction and improvement of antiretroviral therapy, the number of AIDS deaths has plummeted. In 2016, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, only about 6,000 people died of AIDS-related complications. In 2017, according to the federal government, 16,350 deaths Americans who had HIV died of any cause, not necessarily from HIV. 

Even though Forest—a fundamentalist who famously said that “transgenderism is a feeling”—doesn’t entirely grasp how awful the AIDS crisis was for the LGBTQ community, the data his mistakenly citing still undercut the point he’s trying to make. Over the last 39 years, the U.S. has averaged about 18,000 AIDS-related fatalities a year; in the epidemic’s first two decades, about 22,500.

COVID-19 is lapping both of those numbers. 

Forest is correct that there isn’t a vaccine for HIV. But because of ART, more than half of the 1.1 million HIV-positive Americans have it virally suppressed, meaning the risk of transmission is virtually nil. 

The flu, meanwhile, is tougher to categorize, as the CDC only gives ranges for fatalities. Flu season typically runs through May, though it typically peaks in March. The CDC stopped providing updates the week of April 4. As of then, it estimated that between 24,000 and 62,000 Americans would die from influenza.

In other words, COVID deaths have more than doubled on the lower end of that estimate and will hit the upper end probably by the end of the day. 

(We won’t fault Forest for this, but the CDC’s flu-death estimate probably overshoots reality. It’s essentially a mathematical calculation based on assumptions; over the last six flu seasons, the hard count of confirmed flu-related deaths has ranged from 3,448 to 15,620.) 

Maybe, you say, he’s thinking about North Carolina. Only, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services, 177 people died in this flu season, while at least 354 have died of COVID-19 in about a month. 

The context is that Forest supports reopening the state, and the “perspective” to which he was referring is that this virus isn’t all that much more dangerous than HIV or the flu. Of course, you can’t catch HIV from being in the same room with an infected person—if an infected person is taking ARTs, the risk of transmission is very minimal even if you have sex with them—and there’s a vaccine for the flu. 

Forest has been at this almost since the pandemic began. More than a month ago, he argued that Cooper’s restaurant and bar closures shouldn’t affect the then-84 North Carolina counties that had no COVID-19 cases.

Perhaps Forest didn’t realize that viruses don’t respect county borders. Today, even with a statewide stay-at-home order in place, the coronavirus has spread to 98 of North Carolina’s 100 counties. Which is all to say, Dan Forest might not be the best person to consult on matters of public health. 

He also has some interesting thoughts on the societal implications of social distancing: “Social distance is really not social at all. Maybe human distancing, but not social distancing. That’s one of the challenges that we face in this is that people have been very anti-social in a lot of ways. How do we still look at our neighbors, and still love our neighbors and our friends, and not look at people with evil eyes because they are, you know, less than 10 feet away from you?”

Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at 

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