It was a bit of optimism that seemed to run contrary to the moment. It was also a return to form for Trump, who has continually claimed that the virus is under control in the United States.
He did so two weeks ago, during his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. At the time, there were still under 100 cases in the United States.
“We’ve done a great job. And I’ve gotten to know these professionals,” Trump said then. “They’re incredible. And everything is under control. I mean, they’re very, very cool. They’ve done it, and they’ve done it well. Everything is really under control.”
Since then, the number of confirmed cases in the country has risen an average of 30 percent a day. That’s confirmed cases; the actual number of cases is undoubtedly an order of magnitude higher. It’s hard to ascertain the actual number, in part because only about 30,000 tests have been conducted.
During his first briefing on the coronavirus, on Feb. 26, Trump insisted that the government had things well in hand.
“It’s going to be very well under control. Now, it may get bigger, it may get a little bigger. It may not get bigger at all. We’ll see what happens,” he said, later adding that the virus “is a little bit different [from the flu], but in some ways it’s easier and in some ways it’s a little bit tougher. But we have it so well under control. I mean, we really have done a very good job.”
“We have it totally under control,” he said then. “It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s — going to be just fine.”
Needless to say, the government did not have it under control. The question now is whether the damage from the virus can be controlled, both directly — infections and deaths — and indirectly, in the strain it puts on the country’s health-care system. That strain could lead to additional deaths as lifesaving resources needed for other issues are consumed by coronavirus patients.
That grim reality has been experienced in Italy, where the number of coronavirus infections has continued to grow. As we noted last week, the increase in cases in the United States has tracked with the increase in Italy, trailing Italy by a bit over a week in the number of cases. On Sunday, there were nearly 3,700 cases in the United States, about where Italy was on March 6.
This is not a portrait of a country where coronavirus is under control.
The good news is that the increase in confirmed cases in the United States is not climbing at the same rate as in Spain or China, growth rates that stand out when considering the shift since the 500th case was reported in each country. (Again, we reiterate the necessary caveat that the real, undetected number of cases in the United States is much larger.) The bad news is that it’s continuing to grow.
Notice, though, how Italy and South Korea diverged at about the point that the United States has reached. South Korea, which conducted broad testing for the virus and implemented stringent social distancing measures, saw the number of new cases slow. Italy, which was slower to respond, has seen a continued increase.
It offers a glimmer of hope for the United States: Are the measures being rolled out across the country enough to shift our trajectory to mirror that of South Korea? Might Trump’s repeated confidence about the virus being under control reflect such a shift?
Unfortunately, zooming back to the 100-case level suggests that it doesn’t. South Korea’s effort to limit the number of cases it was seeing was already evident at the point the United States has reached. The slope of the curve had already begun to shift downward.
These are absolute numbers, so part of the reason that the rate of increase in the United States better mirrors that in Italy than in South Korea may be a function of the fact that the United States’ efforts to shift the behavior of its population is slower.
But that may just be optimism. As noted above, the United States has continued to average about 30 percent more confirmed cases each day since hitting the 500th case. That’s slower than Spain, but faster than both Italy and South Korea.
There is certainly value in the president calming Americans’ concerns about the coronavirus. The challenge for Trump, though, is that his assurances have been uncoupled from reality for months. It’s hard to see evidence for his claim that the virus is under control now just as it was hard to see how he could make a similar assurance in late January.
If some portion of Trump’s confidence Sunday stemmed from his enthusiasm about the market surge Friday — he sent an autographed picture of the surge to his favorite host on Fox Business — that confidence has probably waned. Markets opened down significantly Monday morning.
The threat to the economy isn’t demonstrably under control, either.