Nonetheless, Trump’s claim is one that can be evaluated based on the data we have at hand. Is it true the “numbers” on the virus look much better? Well, it depends on which numbers you look at and the period over which you look at them.
Let’s say we want to look at the most obvious metric for judging the accuracy of Trump’s claim: the number of new daily cases in each state. Let’s consider that figure over the past two weeks, using a daily seven-day average of new cases since there’s a lot of variability in the day-to-day figures.
By that metric, it’s not the case that the numbers are “going down almost everywhere.” In fact, the seven-day average of new cases is up in 28 states and D.C. since April 27. The map below shows the change relative to April 27 for the week before that date and the two weeks following. States highlighted in blue have seen the average number of cases drop in the past two weeks. Those in gray have seen an increase.
An important consideration here, though, is that the number of tests being conducted have also increased in many of these states over the same period. Test more and you will get more confirmed cases. Trump’s complained about this in the past, arguing that testing more makes the United States “look bad,” since it means an increase in confirmed cases. Of course, testing more also allows authorities to better track the spread of the virus and, then, to better contain outbreaks. It was South Korea’s early, frequent testing, for example, which probably helped it tamp down the virus much better than did the United States.
We can remove the influence of the increase in testing on the question introduced by Trump by looking not at new cases but, instead, at the number of positive tests being returned each day. If and when the virus is fading in a location, we’d expect to see the number of positive tests drop, both because fewer people are being infected and, in some cases, because testing can expand beyond the most obviously symptomatic cases.
By that metric, things look much better. In most states, the seven-day average of positive tests (as a percentage of all tests) has declined over the past two weeks. The 10 states in which that’s not the case (in gray below) are all ones in which the number of confirmed cases has also increased over the past two weeks.
You’ll notice a lot of variability in this metric, with some states seeing subtle changes and some more volatility. That’s usually a function of how many tests the states are conducting. Here, too, there are variations which may be significant. Both how tests are reported (since not all states report all data) and who is being tested will influence this figure.
On average, states have seen a 10.8 percent increase in the number of new cases over the past two weeks. They have also seen an average drop in the number of positive test results of 5.6 percentage points.
What’s missing from Trump’s boast about the decline is that the number of cases and deaths in many places has plateaued, rather than dropped significantly. It’s good to have the number of positive tests decline. It’s not good, though, if that decline is slow and will mean a constant number of new cases and fatalities over time.
It’s also not good if states take actions that threaten to reverse those decreases. In a follow-up tweet to his one about how progress was being made, he offered his support for protesters in Pennsylvania who want to see a scaling back of efforts at slowing the spread of the virus.
The great people of Pennsylvania want their freedom now, and they are fully aware of what that entails. The Democrats are moving slowly, all over the USA, for political purposes. They would wait until November 3rd if it were up to them. Don’t play politics. Be safe, move quickly!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 11, 2020
The “fully aware of what that entails,” of course, is a reference to new infections and new deaths from a virus that is better able to pass between Pennsylvanians. Trump’s acknowledging the push to roll back distancing measures runs in opposition to his praise for how the virus is or may be fading.
It’s important to note, too, that the uncertainty of what metric Trump is using to champion the idea that the numbers look much better may stem from his not relying on any numbers at all. As when he assured America that the 15 cases confirmed at the end of February would soon be gone, he may simply be claiming things are doing well even when they aren’t. Why? Perhaps because he wants to be able to encourage anti-distancing protesters — many of whom are also Trump supporters — by claiming the worst is behind us.
Over time, the data hopefully will offer more concrete insight into whether it is.