He later lamented that journalists weren’t covering this success.
“We don’t get credit for it from the fake-news media,” Trump said. “It’s a terrible thing.”
Later, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany did her part to encourage reporters to cover the chart, leading her news briefing with the image.
“As this chart shows, the United States has, to date, completed 7.5 million coronavirus tests,” she said. “It’s an extraordinary number. And, as you can see, the United States leads the world in testing.”
She called the chart a “testament to American innovation, including the work of the Trump administration.” In reality, a look at testing numbers shows where the United States failed.
McEnany would later compare U.S. testing to South Korea’s, the specifics of which we’ll get to in a bit. So let’s begin with that comparison, showing how testing in the two countries has compared over time.
As you can see, the United States has, in fact, easily outpaced South Korea in cumulative tests conducted. (We’re using figures from Our World in Data, the site from which the Trump-McEnany chart originated.)
That total isn’t the only important part of the graph, though. The two countries famously reported their first confirmed cases of the virus to the World Health Organization on the same day: Jan. 20. For the next two months, South Korea consistently had testing totals that were higher than those in the United States.
In the last week of February, South Korea was averaging more than 9,000 tests per day, a pace the United States didn’t hit until mid-March.
Why is that important? It allowed South Korea to do what the United States couldn’t: contain the virus and limit its spread. You can see that, by the time the United States caught up to the South Korean total in tests, South Korea had already started to flatten the number of new infections. The number of infections in the United States spiked in part because it was testing more — and therefore confirming more cases — but also because the scope of the virus’s spread wasn’t measured or addressed.
It’s the gap between the higher South Korea line and the lower U.S. one that made a difference in the early part of the pandemic.
McEnany wasn’t content to simply compare total tests in the two countries, arguing that the per capita rate of testing in the United States was also superior to that in South Korea.
“You know, if we want to talk about testing and the volume of testing, the fact that in South Korea there are — we always hear about South Korea and their tests — there are 11 tests per thousand,” she said. “Here in the United States, that’s 17 tests per thousand.”
First of all, her numbers are wrong. Remember when she said 7.5 million tests had been completed? That’s about 23 tests per thousand, not 17.
More important, though, the per capita comparison isn’t a defense of how the United States is doing but, instead, highlights the gap in testing in the two countries. It wasn’t until mid-April that the number of tests completed in the United States per thousand residents passed that of South Korea. Until that point, South Korea had been consistently testing more per capita.
Again, this was an important success story for South Korea. At every point in the early stages of the pandemic, South Korea was testing more people than the United States. When each country first hit one case per 1 million residents, South Korea was conducting 21 times as many tests per capita as the United States. When each country hit 10 cases per million, South Korea was still testing more than 2½ times as many people per capita — 0.44 tests per 1,000 compared to 0.17 tests. At 100 cases per million, South Korea was testing almost three times as much per capita as the United States was when it hit that point.
You’ll notice that there are no data for South Korea on the above graph when the United States hit 500 cases per million residents. That’s because South Korea never hit that number.
By testing a lot early, it limited the number of infections. By limiting the number of infections, it didn’t have to test as much as the United States does now. The rate at which U.S. testing is increasing is a sign of our early failure, not our current success.