But that wasn’t Pence’s point. His point was that the numbers showed that the United States had the pandemic well in hand and that there was no reason to believe anything but that things would keep getting better. He dropped a number of data points about case growth, test rates and deaths to reinforce his optimistic point.
A month later, Pence has been proved wrong in nearly every way on every bit of data he offered. The vice president, as the head of the government’s response to the pandemic, presented a case for his own success that was shown to be inaccurate often only days after his article was published.
The core of his case was articulated in two paragraphs.
While talk of an increase in cases dominates cable news coverage, more than half of states are actually seeing cases decline or remain stable. Every state, territory and major metropolitan area, with the exception of three, have positive test rates under 10%. And in the six states that have reached more than 1,000 new cases a day, increased testing has allowed public health officials to identify most of the outbreaks in particular settings — prisons, nursing homes and meatpacking facilities — and contain them.Lost in the coverage is the fact that today less than 6% of Americans tested each week are found to have the virus. Cases have stabilized over the past two weeks, with the daily average case rate across the U.S. dropping to 20,000 — down from 30,000 in April and 25,000 in May. And in the past five days, deaths are down to fewer than 750 a day, a dramatic decline from 2,500 a day a few weeks ago — and a far cry from the 5,000 a day that some were predicting.
Broken down as individual assertions, Pence’s arguments can be seen as completely incorrect.
“While talk of an increase in cases dominates cable news coverage, more than half of states are actually seeing cases decline or remain stable.”
At the time he wrote this, it was generally correct, depending on how you define “stable.” If we say that stability necessitates deviating no more than 2.5 percent from the average daily number of new cases week over week, Pence’s claim was accurate at the time of publication.
But in short order, it wasn’t. Within a week, most states were seeing new cases grow by at least 2.5 percent, week over week. As of Monday, only 11 states had experienced declines in their seven-day averages of new cases since a week ago.
“Every state, territory and major metropolitan area, with the exception of three, have positive test rates under 10%.”
This was apparently false at the time, as our coverage reflects. Pence has data we don’t, so it’s hard to be too certain about the numbers he was working with.
What’s clear, though, is that this is now obviously false. Data from the Covid Tracking Project through Monday shows that more than a fifth of states have positive test rates in excess of 10 percent.
This is important largely because it makes it much harder to track outbreaks. Experts think you can effectively keep the rate of new cases from growing if you’re seeing no more than 10 percent of tests return positive. To stamp out the virus, testing rates need to be closer to 3 percent, allowing the tracking of those who were in contact with the infected person.
Pence’s use of 10 percent as the threshold helps mask how much worse things have gotten. If we use a lower threshold of 5 percent — still above the level needed to suppress the outbreak — the state-level picture is much worse.
“And in the six states that have reached more than 1,000 new cases a day, increased testing has allowed public health officials to identify most of the outbreaks in particular settings — prisons, nursing homes and meatpacking facilities — and contain them.”
It was hard at the time to evaluate the extent to which the claim about containing outbreaks was accurate. Now, though, we can clearly see that either the claim was wrong or that the expansion of new cases in these settings is incidental to the spread of the virus.
Pence’s claim that only six states were seeing more than 1,000 new cases a day (again looking at the seven-day average of new cases) was generally correct at the time. Since then, that number has grown, with 11 states hitting that mark.
More alarming is the number of states where new cases are substantially higher than that. At the time, only one state was seeing more than 2,500 new cases daily — California. On Monday, five were.
“Lost in the coverage is the fact that today less than 6% of Americans tested each week are found to have the virus.”
Again, this was true at the time. Again, it no longer is.
Pence wrote his Journal piece when the rate of positive tests over the prior seven days was near a low. But it was already clearly the case that the decrease in positivity rate had slowed. Within days, it began trending back upward quickly. On Monday, it was nearly twice the rate it was when Pence wrote.
“Cases have stabilized over the past two weeks, with the daily average case rate across the U.S. dropping to 20,000 — down from 30,000 in April and 25,000 in May.”
This was optimistic at the time, as the seven-day average of new cases nationally had already started heading back up. It was also an odd boast: A “stabilizing” rate of new cases means a pandemic that is being accepted, not one that’s being combated.
This is also the metric on which Pence was the most wrong. The daily average of new cases has skyrocketed since he wrote.
“And in the past five days, deaths are down to fewer than 750 a day, a dramatic decline from 2,500 a day a few weeks ago — and a far cry from the 5,000 a day that some were predicting.”
For weeks after Pence wrote, this seemed to be the sole point on which his optimism was warranted. The seven-day average of new deaths kept heading lower and lower.
Experts warned that this probably wouldn’t last. The surge in new cases was not consistent with an ongoing decrease in deaths simply by virtue of the mortality rate of the virus. In the past week, the experts were proved correct, as the seven-day average of new deaths suddenly and sharply began to increase again.
We are now seeing more deaths per day than we did when Pence wrote. As the White House seeks to undercut coronavirus task force member Anthony S. Fauci’s pessimistic view of the pandemic because of his having been optimistic or incorrect early in the outbreak, Pence’s presentation of where the numbers were headed have consistently been shown to be wildly wrong.
It’s harder to judge other claims Pence made, including about testing capacity (which seems to be wavering) and the availability of personal protective equipment. We can, however, judge Pence’s conclusion in his piece.
“The media has tried to scare the American people every step of the way, and these grim predictions of a second wave are no different,” he wrote. “The truth is, whatever the media says, our whole-of-America approach has been a success. We’ve slowed the spread, we’ve cared for the most vulnerable, we’ve saved lives, and we’ve created a solid foundation for whatever challenges we may face in the future. That’s a cause for celebration, not the media’s fearmongering.”
You may assess that claim for yourself.