— Former vice president Joe Biden, in remarks at Bethel AME church in Wilmington, Del., June 1, 2020
“Right now there is a study out at Columbia University and their disease control center up there. They pointed out that if he had listened to me and others and acted just one week earlier to deal with this virus, there’d be 36,000 fewer people dead.”
— Biden, in an interview with the Breakfast Club, May 22
In various venues, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee has cited a preliminary Columbia University study that estimated that tens of thousands fewer people would have died of covid-19 if social-distancing measures had been put in place earlier than mid-March. Specifically, the study estimated that orders in effect March 8 would have resulted in nearly 36,000 fewer deaths (through May 3), and orders as soon as March 1 would have resulted in nearly 54,000 fewer deaths.
In the clip above, Biden cited numbers of 45,000 to 60,000. In other venues, he has more correctly said 36,000 lives if orders were in place a week earlier; or 54,000 if two weeks earlier. Or he has said “thousands of lives.” We’re not going to nitpick the numbers. Assuming the study holds up, there’s not much dispute that earlier action on social distancing would have reduced the death toll.
But we are interested in his claim that President Trump “did not listen to guys like me back in January saying we have a problem, a pandemic is on the way.” In the interview May 22, Biden said that if “he had listened to me and others” and acted sooner, lives would have been saved.
So what did Biden say?
Biden’s reference to January refers to an opinion article he wrote that was published in USA Today on Jan. 27, titled “Trump is worst possible leader to deal with coronavirus outbreak.” The op-ed appeared only days after the Chinese government shut down the city of Wuhan in an effort to stem the crisis, so Biden should be commended for focusing early on an issue that for most Americans was still a distant threat.
In fact, Biden had even tweeted in October, months before the new coronavirus emerged, that Trump was not prepared for a pandemic.
As we have previously noted, the USA Today article is more of an attack on Trump and a recollection of Obama administration steps taken against the 2014 Ebola outbreak than a detailed plan for action against a possible pandemic. But at the same time, Biden indicated that he took the threat seriously, even if he did not explicitly say a pandemic was on the way.
He referred to the “possibility of a pandemic” and noted: “The outbreak of a new coronavirus, which has already infected more than 2,700 people and killed over 80 in China, will get worse before it gets better. Cases have been confirmed in a dozen countries, with at least five in the United States. There will likely be more.”
A few days later, on Jan. 31, Biden asserted: “We have, right now, a crisis with the coronavirus.”
That stands in contrast to Trump, who repeatedly played down the possibility of a pandemic in the United States.
On Jan. 31, Trump issued a written statement announcing travel restrictions by noncitizens coming from China, which said “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has determined that the virus presents a serious public health threat.” But that’s not how Trump described it to the American public.
Here’s a sampling of Trump’s comments around that time:
- Trump, Jan. 30: “Working closely with China and others on Coronavirus outbreak. Only 5 people in U.S., all in good recovery.”
- Trump, Feb. 10: “We’re in very good shape. We have 11 cases and most of them are getting better very rapidly.”
- Trump, Feb. 13: “Based on all signs that the problem goes away in April because — which is not too far down the road, because heat kills this virus.”
- Trump, Feb. 24: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA.”
- Trump, Feb. 25: “We’re really down to probably 10 [coronavirus cases]. Most of the people are outside of danger right now.”
- Trump, Feb. 26: “We’re testing everybody that we need to test. And we’re finding very little problem. Very little problem.”
Biden was asked about the administration’s response to the coronavirus at a CNN town hall Feb. 26. He criticized Trump for not following the advice of health experts to address the issue more quickly because the virus appeared to be spreading through the United States through community transmission. He also knocked Trump for appearing to take at face value China’s assurances that it had the situation under control.
“There was a virus that occurred in the United States that was spread in the United States, not from someone coming from outside the United States. And so it is a concern and I think it’s important that we understand that you have to have a president in charge,” Biden said, adding: “We need to invest immediately. We should have done it from the beginning, the moment the virus appeared. But we’re getting late, but we’ve got good scientists. And I just hope the president gets on the same page as the scientists.”
What Biden did not suggest was social distancing. He kept holding campaign rallies and events into March, as did Trump. At his rallies, the president, in fact, accused Democrats of trying to hype the threat for political reasons.
- Trump, March 4: “We have a very small number of people that we have to really worry about.”
- Trump, March 4: “[Holding rallies] doesn’t bother me at all.”
- Trump, March 9: “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!”
Trump’s last rally was March 2, but his tone on the coronavirus did not change until mid-March. Biden canceled a planned rally in Ohio on March 10, after holding one in Detroit on March 9. On March 11, Trump canceled campaign events scheduled later in March in Colorado, Nevada and Wisconsin
Biden offered his own plan for dealing with the coronavirus March 12 and ordered his campaign staff to work from home starting March 14. Two days later, on March 16, the White House issued stay-at-home guidance that was intended to last 15 days; the guidance later was extended for 30 additional days.
The U.S. action came about three weeks after Italy, which had halted all flights to and from China on Jan. 31, ordered lockdowns of various Italian towns and cut short the Venice carnival, indicating that the coronavirus was spreading rapidly beyond China. Italy extended emergency measures to the whole country March 10. Social-distancing orders then spread rapidly throughout much of the world.
By reference, on March 8, only 500 infections were reported in the United States, in part because the Trump administration failed to quickly ramp up testing. A week later, there were 2,000 infections — and by the end of March, more than 2,500 deaths.
“Starting in January, Vice President Biden repeatedly called on Donald Trump to take the threat of the coronavirus seriously, and to listen to the advice of scientists and experts in making necessary preparations and combating its spread,” Biden spokesman Michael Gwin said. “Trump ignored Biden’s warnings, and failed to take quick action — and he refused to listen to public health experts in the administration who pushed for social distancing measures almost a month before they were actually taken. America has paid an unimaginable price because of Trump’s failure to act quickly, with 100,000 dead and the highest unemployment since the Great Depression.”
The Pinocchio Test
Biden is trying to draw a contrast between how he would have responded to the coronavirus vs. how President Trump has responded, implicitly suggesting that Trump’s lackadaisical response cost thousands of lives.
Unlike Trump, Biden did not have access to the best intelligence about the spread of the virus. Still, from the start, he took the virus seriously. He did not try to sugarcoat the problem, in contrast to Trump. A president sets the tone for a nation and Trump’s insistence that the problem was contained may have misled many Americans into a false sense of security.
Nevertheless, in his recent remarks, Biden leaves the impression he had offered more specific plans to combat the virus. He did not say back in January that it was a pandemic, only that it was a possibility. Moreover, he did not specifically call for social-distancing measures as early as March 1 or even March 8, though he implies that he did. Biden earns Two Pinocchios.
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