Except very little about the 2009 outbreak bears out those claims.
The latest jab came Friday in Trump’s White House news conference, after he was asked whether he bore any responsibility for the shortage of tests. Trump said he doesn’t take any responsibility “at all,” then pivoted back to the swine flu.
“If you go back to the swine flu, it was nothing like this,” Trump said. “They didn’t do testing like this. And actually they had lost approximately 14,000 people and they didn’t do the testing. They started thinking about testing when it was far too late. … They had a very big failure with swine flu. A very big failure.”
Here’s what else Trump has said:
- “Sleepy Joe Biden was in charge of the H1N1 Swine Flu epidemic which killed thousands of people. The response was one of the worst on record. Our response is one of the best, with fast action of border closings & a 78% Approval Rating, the highest on record. His was lowest!”
- “Their response to H1N1 Swine Flu was a full scale disaster, with thousands dying, and nothing meaningful done to fix the testing problem, until now.”
- “If you go back and look at the swine flu and what happened with the swine flu, you’ll see how many people died and how actually nothing was done for such a long period of time, as people were dying all over the place. We’re doing it the opposite. We’re very much ahead of everything.”
- Retweeting this claim from Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk: “This is your daily reminder that it took Barack Obama until October of 2009 to declare Swine Flu a National Health Emergency. It began in April of ’09 but Obama waited until 20,000 people in the U.S. had been hospitalized & 1,000+ had died.”
The first thing is that it’s false to claim “Joe Biden was in charge of the H1N1 Swine Flu epidemic.” Obama never put Biden in charge of the response, as Trump has done with Vice President Pence.
The second is that the claim that “actually nothing was done for a long period of time” is wrong, and the claim that Obama didn’t declare a national health emergency is very misleading. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on April 24, 2009, declared that the containment of swine flu in the United States was “not very likely.” Two days later, April 26, the Obama administration declared a public health emergency, before any American had been killed by the swine flu — the same step Trump has now taken. A couple days later, Obama asked for and received billions of dollars from Congress to deal with the swine flu.
Obama didn’t declare a more drastic national emergency until six months later, but Trump hasn’t done that either. And that brings up the other key point here: The reason for the less drastic initial response was that the swine flu was significantly less dangerous than today’s coronavirus.
While it’s true that more than 1,000 people had died and 20,000 had been hospitalized by the time Obama declared a national health emergency, the fact that those numbers occurred over the course of six months is telling. The spread of the disease was much slower and the mortality rate was much lower than today’s coronavirus. At the current rate, the United States would hit 20,000 cases in a matter of weeks, not six months. What’s more, the swine flu had a mortality rate of 0.02 percent — about one-50th of the lowest rate health officials are citing for the coronavirus today (1 percent).
The last point is that the idea that the Obama administration’s response was a disaster isn’t borne out, either in the data or in public opinion. While 12,000 Americans did die of swine flu, that’s less than the annual numbers for the seasonal flu that Trump is fond of citing. Whether that’s an applicable comparison is for people to decide, but it’s notable that while Trump uses it with the novel coronavirus, he doesn’t use it on the swine flu. The swine flu infected lots of people — 60 million Americans — but it didn’t pose anywhere near the threat to life that the novel coronavirus does.
And if Obama’s (or Biden’s) response was such a disaster, that certainly would have been news to the American people of 2009. At the start of the outbreak, when Obama declared the public health emergency, 66 percent approved of the federal government’s handling of the situation, according to Gallup, while just 16 percent disapproved. Public reaction to the response was very seldom polled in the months that followed (which perhaps reflects the fact that there was really no such outcry). But around the time Obama declared the later national health emergency in October (when more than 1,000 people had died), a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed 69 percent remained confident in the federal government’s response, and a CNN/Opinion Research poll showed fully 57 percent approved of Obama’s handling of the response.
In contrast, a Quinnipiac University poll this week showed just 43 percent approve of Trump’s early handling of the coronavirus response. Trump cites a 78 percent approval rating, but it’s not clear at all where he’s getting that number from. (A Gallup poll did show 77 percent were confident in the broader government’s ability to respond, but that wasn’t about Trump, and it was from a month ago, when the disease had barely spread.)
That doesn’t mean there weren’t any problems with the Obama administration’s response. Around the time of the national emergency declaration, some called the vaccination process inadequate. Biden, too, messed up early on, stating in April 2009 on the “Today” show that he would encourage his family to avoid commercial flights and public transportation — which the Obama administration quickly walked back.
Pointing to that, as Trump has, is fair game. Suggesting that Biden ran the response and that it was some kind of unmitigated disaster as a comparison to what we face today, though, is some real revisionism.