“The H1N1, that was swine flu, commonly referred to as swine flu,” Trump said. “And that went from around April of '09 to April of '10, where there were 60 million cases of swine flu and over — actually, it's over 13,000. I think you might have said 17,000. I had heard it was 13,000, but a lot of — a lot of deaths. And they didn't do anything about it.”
Observers of the exchange who paid attention to the news beyond Hannity’s show would no doubt have understood various unmentioned qualifiers. Testing for the novel coronavirus was in its infancy, in part, we would later learn, because of errors in development and distribution. Then there was the fact that the two were comparing a year’s worth of infections and deaths with about two weeks of known infections. But Trump-Hannity loyalists got their first taste of what would become a rhetorical crutch for the president: comparing his response to the coronavirus favorably with the H1N1 outbreak.
That was boosted when someone dug up comments made by Biden's then-chief of staff Ron Klain in 2019. Speaking during a panel discussion about the 1918 flu pandemic, Klain offered a grim assessment of how the administration of Barack Obama did in responding to H1N1.
“We did every possible thing wrong,” he said. “And it’s, you know, 60 million Americans got H1N1 in that period of time. And it’s just purely a fortuity that this isn’t one of the great mass casualty events in American history. Had nothing to do with us doing anything right. Just had to do with luck.”
Over the course of the 2020 presidential election, even as the number of coronavirus deaths passed 12,500 (about the number who died of H1N1) and 17,000 (the number Hannity cited) and 50,000 (on April 24) and 100,000 (on May 28) and 200,000 (on Sept. 22), Trump kept highlighting Klain’s comments as proving that Biden would have fared no better. Often in the same breath, Trump would praise Operation Warp Speed, his administration’s efforts to develop a vaccine to combat the coronavirus.
With the approval of a vaccine from Pfizer last week and the rollout of vaccinations Monday, a remarkable dash to an effective vaccine appeared to have, in fact, come to fruition. But by Thursday, there was a raft of stories about problems, with states across the country reporting that they were told that fewer vaccine doses would be delivered next week than anticipated. Pfizer released a statement clarifying that they had millions of doses available but hadn’t “received any shipment instructions for additional doses.”
As it turns out, this was Klain’s point. He wasn’t saying that the Obama administration’s response to H1N1 was a complete disaster. He was saying, as he later explained to The Washington Post, that the process of developing and distributing the vaccine was a massive and complicated one that resulted in mistakes being made. That, in essence, relying on a vaccine to prevent widespread death meant relying on a fraught process.
An administration report completed in 2012 which reviewed the administration's handling of the H1N1 outbreak reads like prophecy.
“[E]ven though the six-month goals for initial vaccine delivery were met, most of the vaccine arrived too late to vaccinate much of the public before the pandemic peaked,” it read. Later, it addressed what might be the problem in the moment: “Early projections from [the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority] regarding timing of vaccine supply changed frequently and were inaccurate. This led to public confusion and temporary erosion of confidence in the federal government, and created challenges for the planning and execution of local vaccine administration efforts.”
Those timing problems were eventually resolved. But Trump's focus on Klain's remarks as a political attack meant that he missed the forest for the trees. Eager to amplify criticism from a Biden ally, he failed to acknowledge the actual point Klain was making, a point that was worth internalizing.
What's particularly remarkable about that March 4 Hannity interview, though, is what it reveals about Trump's efforts to celebrate Operation Warp Speed. The program was introduced in May, aiming to quickly develop and distribute a vaccine.
There’s no question that support from the government did aid in both of those efforts, but even when Hannity and Trump spoke in early March, vaccine development was underway. The country’s chief epidemiologist, Anthony S. Fauci, held a news conference in February in which he announced that there were more than a dozen vaccine candidates already in development. Moderna’s vaccine, for example, was already designed by then. If distribution is fluky beyond initial glitches, it further reinforces the point Klain hoped to elevate: that the complexity of vaccine rollouts means that they should not be seen as the only line of defense.
Admitting that things might go wrong is not something familiar to Trump. Just as he’s spent most of the year criticizing Biden for 13,000 people dying of a virus that infected nearly 61 million (a mortality rate of 0.02 percent), he’s spent most of the year insisting that his handling of the coronavirus has been near-flawless (despite killing 1.8 percent of those known to be infected) and that the virus would simply go away.
“We're doing great,” Trump told Hannity on March 4. “So, I think we're going to be in great shape. And this will go, and this will pass, and working on vaccines right now. We're working on therapeutic measures. And we're working on a lot of things.”
By then, 77 Americans were known to have died of the coronavirus. On Thursday, 77 people died of the virus about every half-hour.