Over the past week, President Trump has repeatedly addressed the coronavirus outbreak in the United States in speeches and at news briefings. Often, he’s made sweeping claims about dramatic new measures aimed at quickly addressing the virus, treatment or preventing the virus’s spread. Often, those claims turn out to be inaccurate.
There was another example in the briefing Thursday morning. Trump raised the drug chloroquine, an anti-malarial that some doctors are optimistic can be used to treat covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“This has been used in different forms, a very powerful drug in different forms, and it's shown very encouraging, very, very encouraging early results,” Trump said. “We're going to be able to make that drug available almost immediately. That's where the FDA has been so great. They've gone through the approval process. It's been approved. And they did it. They took it down from many, many months to immediate. So we're going to be able to make that drug available by prescription or states."
Good news — but not accurate news.
“It’s already approved, as the president said, for the treatment of malaria, as well as an arthritis condition,” FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said a few minutes later. “That’s a drug that the president has directed us to take a closer look at as to whether an expanded-use approach to that could be done to actually see if that benefits patients.”
In other words, this could be useful, but it hasn’t yet been approved for broad treatment of covid-19, despite Trump’s claim.
Again, this pattern — great news followed by more sober revelations — has played out repeatedly since Trump’s prime time speech from the Oval Office last week.
Address to the nation, March 11
• “We will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days. … There will be exemptions for Americans who have undergone appropriate screenings.” This wasn’t quite true. The White House quickly clarified that the ban didn’t apply to American citizens.
• “I met with the leaders of the health insurance industry who have agreed to waive all co-payments for coronavirus treatments, extend insurance coverage to these treatments, and to prevent surprise medical billing.” This was also not the case. Insurance industry officials quickly clarified that the agreement was to waive co-pays for testing.
• “I will be instructing the Treasury Department to defer tax payments, without interest or penalties, for certain individuals and businesses negatively impacted.” This was subsequently announced by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
• “I am calling on Congress to provide Americans with immediate payroll tax relief.” Congress declined to implement this proposal.
Rose Garden news briefing, March 13
• Announcing a national emergency allowed the government “to waive laws to enable telehealth, a fairly new and incredible thing that’s happened in the — in the not-so-distant past.” The shift to online diagnoses was a success, quickly overwhelming capacity.
• “We therefore expect up to a half a million additional tests will be available early next week. We’ll be announcing locations probably on Sunday night. … 1.4 million tests on board next week and 5 million within a month. I doubt we’ll need anywhere near that. … We’ll have the ability to do in the millions over a very, very quick period of time.” The administration has repeatedly insisted that the number of available tests would quickly be in the millions, though the actual number of tests that have been conducted is in the tens of thousands.
Asked about that divide, Trump didn’t have an answer.
“I cannot explain the gap,” Trump said. “I’m hearing very good things on the ground.”
• “We’ve been in discussions with pharmacies and retailers to make drive-through tests available in the critical locations identified by public health professionals. The goal is for individuals to be able to drive up and be swabbed without having to leave your car.” There have been some locations in which drive-up testing has since been implemented. This testing requires approval from a medical professional.
• “Google is helping to develop a website. It’s going to be very quickly done, unlike websites of the past, to determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location. … Google has 1,700 engineers working on this right now. They’ve made tremendous progress.” Google was not actively developing a website of the kind that Trump announced. It has since begun to roll out a tool that allows for some geographically limited assessments and has worked to build it out more broadly.
• “At the same website, you’ll be directed to one of these incredible companies that are going to give a little bit of their parking lot so that people can come by and do a drive-by test.” Again, this wasn’t and isn’t the case.
News briefing, March 14
• Trump touted an agreement on a bill addressing the economic impacts of the virus that included, among other things, “free coronavirus testing for all Americans who should be tested.” This is true.
• “It also provides paid sick and family medical leave for those who need it, including for those who have the virus, for caregivers, and those looking after children affected by school closures.” This is not universally true; it exempts companies with 500 or more employees.
• “The masks are being made by the millions. Millions and millions. We have plenty now, but we’re ordering for the millions.” We don’t have plenty now, as The Washington Post reported Thursday. Vice President Pence said Thursday that he’d spoken with manufacturers about ramping up mask production.
News briefing, March 16
• “We have stockpiles now, and we’re ordering tremendous numbers of ventilators, respirators, masks. And they’re ordered, and they’re coming, and we have quite a few at this point. … We’ve ordered a lot. We have quite a few, but it may not be enough. And if it’s not enough, we will have it by the time we need it. Hopefully, we won’t need them.” Again, experts suggest that the available supply of masks and ventilators is vastly insufficient.
News briefing, March 17
• “All states can now authorize tests developed and used within their borders, in addition to the FDA. So the states are very much involved.” That shift has in fact allowed states like New York to ramp up testing.
News briefing, March 18
• “We’re sending, upon request, the two hospital ships; they’re being prepared right now. They’re massive ships. They’re the big white ships with the red cross on the sides. One is called the Mercy and the other is called the Comfort. And they are in tiptop shape. They soon will be. They’re getting ready to come up to New York.” These ships are designed to be floating hospitals. However, the secretary of defense confirmed shortly after Trump’s remarks that they would be provided for uses other than treating coronavirus and that it would take weeks for them to arrive.
• “The first clinical trial of the vaccine candidate for the virus began in Washington state, as you probably know. The genetic sequence of the virus was first published in January. But thanks to the unprecedented partnership between the FDA, NIH and the private sector, we’ve reached human trials for the vaccine just eight weeks later.” The vaccine trials are indeed underway and quickly, but the timeline still indicates that a vaccine that can be deployed nationally is at least a year away.
• “I’m also announcing that the Department of Housing and Urban Development is providing immediate relief to renters and homeowners by suspending all foreclosures and evictions until the end of April.” This was implemented.
News briefing, March 19
• The head of Carnival Cruise Lines told Trump that he would “make ships available. So in addition to the big medical ships that you have coming, if we should need ships with lots of rooms, they’ll be docked at New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco, different places.” This has been a recommendation from various experts, converting the ships into possible quarantine centers since actual commercial cruises are not feasible at the moment.
Whether this comes to fruition remains to be seen.