The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Six months ago, Trump said that coronavirus cases would soon go to zero. They ... didn’t.

But with new constraints on testing, Trump may get his wish eventually.

Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, President Trump has repeatedly said that the virus will disappear. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

It was exactly six months ago Wednesday when the spread of the coronavirus in the United States had become too significant for President Trump to wave away. He and several members of the team planning the administration’s response held a news briefing designed to inform the public about the virus and, more important, to allay concerns.

This was the briefing in which Trump made one of his most wildly incorrect assertions about what the country could expect.

“The level that we’ve had in our country is very low,” Trump said, referring to new confirmed infections, “and those people are getting better, or we think that in almost all cases they’re better, or getting. We have a total of 15. We took in some from Japan — you heard about that — because they’re American citizens, and they’re in quarantine.”

That part was generally true. At the time, there had been only a smattering of confirmed cases, with the addition of passengers from the cruise ship Diamond Princess pushing the confirmed total to more than 50.

“So, again,” he added later, “when you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”

It was a brash prediction and seemingly an off-the-cuff one. Trump’s point was less about what was going to happen than arguing that his administration had done a good job. But by linking those two things, he made it simple for observers to use his assertion that the number of cases would fade as a baseline for measuring everything that followed.

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Over time, more cases from the period before Feb. 26 would be discovered, including two early deaths in California from covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. There were actually almost 200 cases that would eventually be confirmed by the time Trump was saying the country would go from 15 to zero.

The experts standing behind Trump would have known that Trump’s claims were inaccurate. As the briefing was underway, The Washington Post reported a confirmed case of “community spread” — a documented infection that couldn’t be traced to international travel. In other words, it was uncontained: The virus was moving from person to person without impediment or detection.

Although about 200 cases in that period eventually would be confirmed, even that number was far lower than the reality. Researchers can use documented cases to estimate the number of cases that weren’t being detected and that also weren’t later confirmed through testing. For example, an estimate produced by data scientist Youyang Gu puts the likely number of new infections on Feb. 26 somewhere in the range of 13,000 to 25,000.

On that day alone.

Within a month, the country would go from Trump’s 15 cases to nearly 88,000 cases. By April 26, the total was nearly a million. By May 26, 1.7 million. The most recent total is north of 5.7 million.

That steady increase is in part a function of Trump repeating the same mistake over and over, portraying the pandemic as ending or functionally ended. As cases faded a bit in May and June, he pushed for a return to normal economic activity, triggering a new surge in confirmed cases. That second increase has been fading for about a month, happily, but the country is still adding 33 percent more confirmed new cases each day than it did at the peak in April.

That’s confirmed cases, a metric that relies on testing. Gu’s estimates of the actual spread of the virus put the country about 40 percent below the peak in daily new cases, which was reached in early July.

Trump, of course, blames testing for revealing the scale of the pandemic in the first place. He has a point, in a way: Had the United States never managed to solve its problems with testing, something that took weeks, there wouldn’t have been millions of confirmed cases. There would still have been millions of cases or, perhaps, tens of millions of cases. We just wouldn’t have known how many there were.

It has been about two months since Trump held a political rally in Tulsa, contributing to a new surge of cases in the city. There, he made a tongue-in-cheek reference to asking his team to slow down on testing, because it was pushing the number of confirmed cases higher. As they say, though, each joke contains a grain of truth, and it was clear that Trump, in fact, would be happy to see the number of tests drop so that the number of confirmed cases did as well.

Data compiled by the COVID Tracking Project show that he has gotten his wish, to a degree. Over the past month, the number of tests being completed each day in the United States has dropped by nearly one-fifth.

Part of this is a function of interference from natural disasters, with storms in Florida and fires in California limiting testing capacity. Part of it, too, is probably a function of the drop in the number of cases coming back positive. Fewer new cases means fewer people feeling sick and seeking tests to confirm an infection. The drop in the percent of tests coming back positive reinforces that trend.

But, increasingly, part of it will stem from the administration de-emphasizing testing. New guidance published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested that those who had been in contact with an infected person no longer needed to be tested, particularly when asymptomatic.

This, too, has been something Trump has talked about a lot, complaining that people without symptoms were being tested and confirmed as positive — and added to the total number of infections.

“Many of those cases are young people that would heal in a day,” Trump said in an interview on July 19. “They have the sniffles and we put it down as a test.”

The reason it’s important to track asymptomatic cases, of course, is that those people can still infect others. To defeat the pandemic, we need to contain it, and the new CDC approach runs the significant risk of leaving large holes in that containment effort. But, with the presidential election only about 70 days away, it will mean fewer confirmed cases.

The irony of Trump’s complaints about the virus from the outset is that the United States’ confirmed infection totals already have been minimized because of limited testing. The reason Trump was able to claim that there were only 15 cases six months ago was that the administration had spent the month since the first confirmed case in the country unable to put together a robust testing regimen that would allow the virus to be constrained. South Korea, where such a regimen was quickly implemented, actually did see its virus numbers drop to near zero.

In other words, Trump’s prediction was not only wrong, it was wrong in large part because Trump’s team hadn’t done what would have been needed to make it come true. Trump portrays himself as an unwitting victim of the pandemic, but his comment six months ago Wednesday is a good reminder that he can put a lot of the blame for his position on himself.