In the novel coronavirus, President Donald Trump has finally met a problem that can’t be solved with his usual bag of political tools: obfuscation, denial, deflecting blame, and misinformation.
That hasn’t stopped him from trying, even if it means saying things that endanger public health.
As of March 12, the US has seen 1,323 confirmed cases of Covid-19, the disease stemming from the coronavirus, and 38 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker. Public health officials, including those in his own administration, now estimate that millions of people may eventually be infected with Covid-19.
“If we are complacent and don’t do really aggressive containment and mitigation, the number could go way up and be involved in many, many millions.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, told the House Oversight Committee yesterday.
Trump, who addressed the nation from the Oval Office Wednesday night, has consistently sought to downplay the public health risk of the burgeoning pandemic while his administration has been slow to respond to the crisis.
Perhaps most concerning has been Trump’s instinct to outright contradict the facts and statements of the government’s top infectious disease experts as his administration has struggled to contain the outbreak. Here are seven of his coronavirus lies.
1) Trump’s Wednesday address to the nation
Trump’s statement to the nation Wednesday evening was his most serious treatment of the outbreak to date. He “injected gravity and even a sense of crisis into a topic that he and right-wing media have downplayed for weeks,” making it a “critical step in the right direction,” Vox’s Kelsey Piper explained.
Unfortunately, it was also deeply flawed. Several of his statements, like a trade restriction with Europe along with his travel ban, had to be swiftly walked back by White House officials. Trump was unclear about exempting American citizens and permanent residents from the ban, leading to panicked crowds congregating in enclosed spaces at many European airports like Charles de Gaulle in Paris, France.
Perhaps most egregious was his claim that major insurance companies would cover treatment for Covid-19 free of charge, when in actuality they had agreed only to coronavirus testing without a co-pay.
Trump’s claim tonight that health insurers “have agreed to waive all copayments for coronavirus treatments” seems to be news to them.
“For testing. Not for treatment.” a spokesperson for the major insurance lobby AHIP says.
— Sarah Owermohle (@owermohle) March 12, 2020
While Trump’s speech Wednesday evening finally sent a signal to the American public that the novel coronavirus is very serious, the mixed-up details undermined the endeavor.
2) Death rate hunch
In a phone interview with Sean Hannity on March 4, Trump contradicted public health experts’ estimates of the death rate for Covid-19 — based on a “hunch.”
To be sure, a precise death rate for Covid-19 is difficult to measure, in part because testing hasn’t been done on a large enough scale to measure accurately. Earlier this month, the World Health Organization had the death rate pegged at about 3.4 percent. Many experts think that number may be too high, given the struggles with adequate testing, putting the true number likely closer to 1 percent.
Trump, however, told Fox viewers that the death rate was even lower — a “fraction of 1 percent” — based on his “hunch.” Here’s the rest of the quote:
Now, this is just my hunch, but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this, because a lot of people will have this and it is very mild… So if, you know, we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better, just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work, some of them go to work, but they get better and then, when you do have a death like you had in the state of Washington, like you had one in California, I believe you had one in New York, you know, all of a sudden it seems like 3 or 4 percent, which is a very high number, as opposed to a fraction of 1 percent.
Trump may have sought to downplay the mortality risk of Covid-19 in order to reassure nervous Americans and a jittery economy, but instead created a much more dangerous situation where people weren’t taking the virus seriously enough. It’s true that the risk of dying is highest for elderly people and immunocompromised people (the US has plenty of both), but as Vox’s Dylan Scott and Eliza Barclay explained, “the speed at which the outbreak plays out matters hugely for its consequences”:
What epidemiologists fear most is the health care system becoming overwhelmed by a sudden explosion of illness that requires more people to be hospitalized than it can handle. In that scenario, more people will die because there won’t be enough hospital beds or ventilators to keep them alive.
So not taking the virus seriously — at the bureaucratic and individual levels — means fewer people taking suitable precautions, and possibly more cases and more deaths.
3) “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear”
On February 28, Trump said that coronavirus will “disappear” like a “miracle” while speaking at a press conference for his coronavirus task force. On Tuesday, he told reporters on Capitol Hill that coronavirus “will go away.” In late February, he speculated that warm weather would kill the virus and stop its spread. None of these statements are backed by science or infectious disease experts within his own administration. (Though some diseases — like the seasonal flu — do diminish in warmer seasons, there is currently no evidence the novel coronavirus will behave this way.)
Experts all along have predicted that without drastic measures to prevent outbreaks from growing bigger or the rapid development of a vaccine, the novel coronavirus will likely continue spreading and become endemic, a regular disease like the common cold.
4) “Anyone who wants a test can get one”
On March 7 while visiting the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia, Trump said that anyone who wants a test for Covid-19 can get one.
As countless viral Twitter threads, local news stories, and more have recounted, that promise has not rung true. Take the “Kafkaesque” story physician’s assistant Julie Eaker told Vox’s Brian Resnick and Dylan Scott about trying to get one patient tested in California:
First, Eaker called her local health department and was told her patient didn’t qualify for testing since they hadn’t traveled to China, per the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the time. After the CDC relaxed its testing criteria, the patient was still sick, so Eaker called again. “I didn’t receive a phone call back,” she says.
The patient thought they had pneumonia and asked to be tested for peace of mind. Finally, last week, after Eaker ordered some test kits herself from a private lab, she got a call back. “The health department told me I was not allowed to use those test kits — that I ordered — without their permission!”
Eaker was horrified. So she called the CDC to confirm if the local health department was correct. “I did not get through,” she says. “I spent hours and hours and hours on hold. … So I thought I would just call the White House and talk to Vice President Pence, who is in charge of the coronavirus task force.“
She didn’t get Pence, but a White House switchboard operator told her to call the CDC.
“Somebody has got to help us,” she says, exasperated. “We’re out here on the front lines trying to take care of people.”
But the problem has been bigger than that. The administration had promised to quickly deliver 1 million testing kits to private labs. But on March 6, the White House announced that it would fall far short of that goal for testing kit distribution.
According to virologists, the best way to prevent an outbreak of a highly contagious virus like coronavirus is through aggressive testing. Knowing who is infected and when they became infected allows traditional measures like quarantines to work more effectively. If people don’t know they have it, they aren’t able to take their own steps to prevent spreading it to others.
In that, the administration has failed. So far, the US only has a limited capacity to process coronavirus tests every day, meaning we likely don’t have accurate numbers for the scale of this virus’s spread. The CDC has recommended that hospitalized patients displaying Covid-19 symptoms, as well as those who belong to at-risk populations, should get priority for testing, but anecdotal accounts of people with symptoms being denied a test have begun popping up on social medial.
At first, Trump blamed an Obama-era FDA rule for its slow response in distributing test kits, but experts have since revealed that claim to be false.
5) The flu is worse
During that March 4 call with Hannity, Trump also compared coronavirus with the flu. He mentioned that the flu kills anywhere between 27,000 and 77,000 people every year, implying that coronavirus isn’t as serious of a threat to public health as Influenza.
In this clip, Trump:
1. Denies WHO’s coronavirus death rate based on “hunch”
2. Calls coronavirus “corona flu”
3. Suggests it’s fine for people w/ Covid-19 to go to work
4. Compares coronavirus to “the regular flu,” indicating he doesn’t get the difference pic.twitter.com/uC9c03zX31
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 5, 2020
Trump’s own infectious disease experts have said that idea is wrong. Dr. Fauci told Congress on March 11 that “the mortality of [Covid-19] is multiple times what the seasonal flu is.”
The reason why lies in the numbers. The CDC estimates that the seasonal flu has resulted in between 9.3 million and 49 million illnesses in the US each year since 2010, putting the flu’s death rate at about 0.1 percent. Even if WHO’s 3.4 percent death rate for coronavirus is high due to inadequate testing capacity, using other public health expert’s estimations of around 1 percent would mean that Covid-19 could be as much as 10 times deadlier than the seasonal flu.
If 49 million Americans were to be infected with the coronavirus, a 1 percent death rate would cause 490,000 deaths, much more than the flu.
6) A vaccine will be available soon
On February 25, Trump promised that a vaccine would be available soon. “Now they have it, they have studied it, they know very much, in fact, we’re very close to a vaccine,” Trump said during a state visit to India. That simply isn’t possible even if development of a vaccine were prioritized and pushed through the regulatory process as fast as possible — as pharmaceutical executives explained to Trump himself.
Dr. Fauci estimates that it would be at least a year or a year and a half before a vaccine would be available to the general public. Several potential vaccine solutions for coronavirus are in early development in China, but Daniel O’Day, CEO of Gilead Sciences, told Trump that those are only now entering clinical trials. It’s likely that a vaccine will eventually be developed and available to the general public, but it’s not going to save us from this current outbreak.
7) The US was “most prepared country in the world”
Trump has repeatedly claimed that the US was the most prepared country in the world. This is, frankly, Trump’s usual political bluster. The reality is that his administration, with the help of a Republican-controlled Congress, hampered the country’s ability to fight pandemics like Covid-19, as explained by Vox’s Matthew Yglesias:
That’s part of a broader pattern of actual and potential Trump efforts to shut down America’s ability to respond to pandemic disease.
Congress mercifully didn’t agree to any such cuts, but as recently as February 11 — in the midst of the outbreak — Trump proposed huge cuts to both the CDC and the National Institutes of Health.
Perhaps because his budget officials were in the middle of proposing cuts to disease response, it’s only over this past weekend that they pivoted and started getting ready to ask for the additional money that coping with Covid-19 is clearly going to cost. But experts say they’re still lowballing it.
In early 2018, my colleague Julia Belluz argued that Trump was “setting up the US to botch a pandemic response” by, for example, forcing US government agencies to retreat from 39 of the 49 low-income countries they were working in on tasks like training disease detectives and building emergency operations centers.
Instead of taking such warnings to heart, later that year, “the Trump administration fired the government’s entire pandemic response chain of command, including the White House management infrastructure,” according to Laurie Garrett, a journalist and former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In fact, the Trump administration remains committed to cutting funding to fight potential pandemics. When confronted in a congressional hearing about a 15 percent cut of $1.2 billion to the CDC and a $35 million decrease to the Infectious Diseases Rapid Response Reserve Fund’s annual contribution in the White House’s proposed 2021 budget, acting director of the White House Office of Management and Budget Russ Vought defended the proposed cuts.