He came back to a comparison with South Korea later.
Thanks to the administration’s efforts, Trump said, “every single state will be able to test more people per capita in May alone than South Korea has tested in four months since the outbreak began.”
Assistant Health Secretary Brett P. Giroir continued the theme.
“If you look at per capita, everyone talks about South Korea being the standard today,” Giroir said. “We will have done more than twice their per capita rate of testing that was accomplished in South Korea.”
Over and over, comparisons with South Korea, efforts to position the U.S. testing process as superior.
Why? In short, because South Korea and the United States recorded their first confirmed coronavirus infection on the same day. As we wrote last week, South Korea rapidly rolled out testing. The United States didn’t. Cases and deaths here mounted as South Korea’s totals were held down.
What the administration presented on Monday was accurate. It was just misleading. Trump’s comparison of how many tests the United States has conducted relative to South Korea isn’t wrong, but it’s a bit like boasting about how you’ve earned $1 million over 25 years of employment, putting you among the richest Americans alive back in 1830. Good for you, I guess.
Giroir’s claim is similarly true — and suffers from a similar flaw. All of the U.S. tests that have been conducted yield a per capita testing rate double South Korea’s per capita rate. But, again, South Korea was testing far more per capita two months ago and was, therefore, better able to limit the virus’s spread.
Trump’s claim about per capita testing in May gets closer to the mark of something useful, though the comparison with South Korea is again wonky, for reasons we’ll get into in a second.
This is, in fact, the important metric: how many tests can be conducted now. A review of per capita testing data compiled by Our World in Data shows that, of countries for which daily figures were available in 20 days of the past month, the U.S. per capita testing rate is higher than 40 other countries. It’s lower than 10: Australia, Bahrain, Denmark, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Qatar, Russia and Britain.
Weirdly, the comparison between South Korea and the United States on this metric is actually stronger now than the overall twice-as-much figure cited by Giroir. The most recent three-day average in each country indicates that the United States is conducting 12 times as many daily tests on a per capita basis as South Korea.
Again, though, the important factor is that this ratio wasn’t in place two months ago. If we extend the data back two months, we see that, at that point, South Korea was testing far more per capita than the United States. On March 10, the data showed South Korea conducting nearly 40 times as many tests per capita as the United States.
Lifting a graph from our article last week, the effect was dramatic: South Korea could identify and contain infections, limiting the spread of the virus. In the United States, the virus spread widely without detection.
The critical point here is that South Korea’s heavy, early testing meant that there were fewer infections — and, therefore, fewer tests needed down the road. Boasting about how we’re continuing to expand our lead in tests completed over South Korea is a little like bragging about how many more burglars you’ve arrested than a country where there aren’t many burglaries. Again: Good for you?
I don’t mean to be flip about this. It’s good that testing is gearing up, even if it’s not the case, as Trump said Monday, that anyone who wants a test can get one. (The actual benchmark toward which states are being asked to aim is to be able to test 2 percent of the population each month.) More testing means being able to track and contain the virus, which is useful for everyone.
Comparing the number of overall tests completed with how many South Korea has done is only really useful to anyone in South Korea looking for a point of pride.