The testing snafu
“We inherited obsolete tests.”
There were no tests for the novel coronavirus, which only emerged in China late in 2019, so tests had to be developed specifically by countries starting in January. Trump appears to be referring to a system in place that relied on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to take the lead in developing the tests. But a still-unspecified manufacturing problem caused the CDC to distribute flawed tests to state and local health departments. On top of that, having the CDC take the lead, rather than the private sector, was inappropriate for the task of testing potentially hundreds of thousands of people.
Two former Trump administration officials had warned on Jan. 28, in a Wall Street Journal article, that the CDC was not up to task and the private sector needed to be engaged. But the Trump administration waited another month before it fast-tracked the development of tests by private companies.
“I can only say that we are doing more than anybody in the world by far. We are testing highly accurate tests.”
Trump often makes this misleading claim about the level of testing in the United States. It is accurate when looking only at raw numbers. But the key indicator is tests per capita, which gives a read on the share of the population that has contracted the disease.
A crowdsourced tally provided by the Covid Tracking Project says the United States has tested 1.1 million people as of March 31. That represents about 1 in 297 people. Italy, for example, has a smaller population and a lower number of total tests, but it tested about three times as many people on a per capita basis: 1 in 133.
Here’s a graphic illustration of how the United States stacks up when accounting for population size.
“I mean, tests were given out, not by us, by other countries, where there was a 50-50 chance that it was wrong. What kind of a test is that? These are highly accurate tests.”
Trump often disparages covid-19 tests by other countries, even on March 17 falsely calling the World Health Organization test “a bad test.” (The WHO does not make tests, but its preferred one, created in Germany, received positive reviews for not having significant false positives or negatives.)
It’s possible Trump was referring to a study of an early diagnostic test in China that indicated a false positive rate of 47 percent. But that study has been withdrawn. We asked the White House for an explanation but did not get a response.
“I had a decision to make; maybe it was my biggest decision. China was heavily infected and thousands and thousands of people were coming from China to the United States. And against the wishes, not even wishes, but they disagreed with the decision I made, a decision to stop [people from] China from coming in, took a lot of heat even from China. … That was a big decision; that was earlier than the date you’re talking about so that was a big decision.”
Trump was asked whether the administration’s projected number of coronavirus-related deaths in the United States, ranging from 100,000 to 200,000, would have been lower “if we had started the social distancing guidelines sooner in February or January.”
Trump dodged the question and said he made a difficult decision, announced Jan. 31, to ban most foreign travelers from China to the United States.
“We did catch it early and we stopped China really early,” Trump said later in the briefing. But as we noted, the Trump administration and several key agencies were slow to act on testing and public health measures when the outbreak began. Government documents, testimony, news reports and interviews tell the story; a video investigation by The Fact Checker team found the government was blind to the virus’s spread, and several errors opened the door for 11 confirmed cases to balloon to more than 100,000 in less than six weeks.
“We gave him [New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo] a lot of ventilators. And you know what? He has a lot of ventilators. The problem is with some people, no matter what you give, it’s never enough.”
More than 40 percent of coronavirus cases in the United States had occurred in New York as of March 30. Cuomo, a Democrat, says the state will require about 30,000 ventilators to save patients from dying when the peak of the outbreak arrives in coming weeks. The federal government has sent 4,000 ventilators.
“I don't want them [the states] to compete because all they’re going to do is drive up the price. I don't want them to compete. They should be calling us and we can work it so they get the ventilators and they get shipped directly. If they’re competing, if they’re calling, even if there’s only two of them calling, they're going to just drive up the price because as nice as some of the people are that do ventilators, they do want to make money, okay?”
A shortage of ventilators and personal protective equipment for health-care workers (masks, gowns, gloves and the like) has caused consternation among local leaders and medical professionals. Because supplies are limited, states have had to compete and outbid each other for what’s available on the market.
One way to short-circuit the problem, according to Cuomo and others, is for Trump to use the Defense Production Act to ramp up manufacturing of these supplies and allocate them to the places that need them. Trump has been reluctant to use his full powers under the law.
“New York had a chance to buy 16,000 ventilators. I guess they didn’t take that option. That was in 2016 and that’s a hard option to take because it’s a lot of money and who would ever think you need 16,000 ventilators? Who would ever think it?”
Trump keeps repeating this specious claim to deflect questions about the ventilator shortage in New York. It comes from the right-leaning website Gateway Pundit, which in turn borrowed from an opinion piece in the New York Post by Betsy McCaughey, a New York Republican politician who was once married to Trump’s commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross.
It’s a false construct, especially as Trump framed it. McCaughey claims New York, which has 2,000 ventilators, could have purchased 16,000 in 2015. That’s when a task force set out guidelines for allocating ventilators during a possible pandemic. However, the task force report made no recommendation for buying ventilators, let alone a number such as 16,000.
“New York State may have enough ventilators to meet the needs of patients in a moderately severe pandemic,” the report said. “In a severe public health emergency on the scale of the 1918 influenza pandemic, however, these ventilators would not be sufficient to meet the demand.”
The report noted that buying too many ventilators might be counterproductive: “Severe staffing shortages are anticipated, and purchasing additional ventilators beyond a threshold will not save additional lives, because there will not be a sufficient number of trained staff to operate them.”
Who called it a flu?
“I mean, I’ve had many friends, business people, people with great, actually, common sense, they said, ‘Why don’t we ride it out?’ A lot of people have said, a lot of people have thought about it, ‘Ride it out, don’t do anything, just ride it out, and think of it as the flu.’ But it’s not the flu.”
Hmm, who could Trump be talking about? He might as well be pointing the finger at himself. As recently as March 24, only a week earlier, the president was equating covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, to the flu: “We lose thousands of people a year to the flu. We never turn the country off.”
Or as he put it on Feb. 26: “This is a flu. This is like a flu. … It’s a little bit different, but in some ways it’s easier, and in some ways it’s a little bit tougher.”
Similarly, on March 9, in a tweet: “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”
At the very least, Trump’s consistent effort over many weeks to portray covid-19 as a type of flu could have created a feedback loop. Trump has the world’s biggest megaphone, and his friends may have been regurgitating his message.
“I just want to add: I think the one thing nobody really knew about this virus was how contagious it was. It’s so incredibly contagious. Nobody knew that.”
As we noted, it was only a few days ago that Trump was comparing covid-19 to the much-less-contagious seasonal flu. Now, he’s changed his tune. But the high level of contagiousness has been known for many weeks.
On March 4, the CDC issued a guide to the coronavirus that noted it appeared to be very contagious because it was “spreading easily and sustainably in the community” and could be spread among people who are within six feet of each other.
“One is they [the Obama administration] had maybe shovel-ready jobs, maybe not, but they never use it for the purpose of infrastructure. So far, nobody’s been able to find any money that was spent on infrastructure.”
Perhaps Trump has forgotten about those controversial signs across the nation that touted projects being built with money from President Barack Obama’s $840 billion stimulus law? “Putting America Back to Work — Project Funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act,” the signs read.
The law provided tax cuts and paid for social programs, so infrastructure spending was probably only one-tenth of the total. But the evidence the money was spent is clear. The Trump administration has deleted the Web pages at the Transportation Department that used to proclaim the law “initiated more than 13,000 projects through the Federal Highway Administration, improving more than 42,000 miles of road and more than 2,700 bridges.”
Trump had praised the bill for its mix of provisions when it was approved.
“Well, I think taxes are very good. I think it goes quickly. It is easily done, and etc., etc.,” Trump told Fox News in 2009, “but building infrastructure, building great projects, putting people to work in that sense is also very good, so I think you have a combination of both, plus he is doing a rebate system and I think that is good also.”
“We very much discuss the oil and the oil prices. I mean, you look, it’s $22, but it’s really much deeper than that if you want to negotiate. Nobody’s seen that. That’s like from the 1950s. It really is. You know, to think that it was $50, $60, $70, $80, and now it’s $22.”
Crude oil prices are tumbling because of a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia and because communities worldwide are adopting social distancing and stay-at-home measures to contain the virus from spreading. But Trump is exaggerating the drop in prices. They fell even more in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“Brent, the international benchmark, lost almost 13 per cent to hit a low of $21.76 a barrel, the lowest since 2002,” the Financial Times reported March 30, while the U.S. benchmark — West Texas Intermediate — for the first time since 2002 traded under $20 a barrel.
“We had the greatest economy in the history of our country; we had the greatest economy in the world. We had the best unemployment numbers and employment numbers that we have ever had by far, and in one instant, we said, ‘We have no choice but to close it up.’”
Trump certainly can boast about rapid economic growth during his first three years in office, but the pre-coronavirus economy never topped U.S. records, according to experts we consulted. And some other countries had been growing at a faster clip.
The Trump economy has yet to achieve an annual GDP growth rate above 3 percent. In 1997, 1998 and 1999, GDP grew 4.5 percent, 4.5 percent and 4.7 percent, respectively. Yet even that period paled in comparison against the 1950s and 1960s. Growth between 1962 and 1966 ranged from 4.4 percent to 6.6 percent. In postwar 1950 and 1951, it was 8.7 percent and 8 percent, respectively.
The unemployment rate reached a low of 3.5 percent under Trump, but it dipped as low as 2.5 percent in 1953. Trump has set the record when using a different metric — the total number of people with jobs — but that’s no wonder because the population keeps growing and setting records, too.
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