AP FACT CHECK: Trump’s alternate reality on COVID-19 threat
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump appears to be living in an alternate reality when it comes to the COVID-19 threat.
Over the weekend, he clung to the misguided notion that the virus will just “disappear” even as his top science experts and GOP allies bluntly say otherwise.
Trump also continued to wrongly insist that anyone who wants a coronavirus test is getting one, made the head-scratching suggestion that the virus is under control when infections are surging to fresh daily highs and lodged false accusations against the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci.
The statements came in a week of distorted truth. Trump referred repeatedly to his “ban” on travel from China that wasn’t so and issued a scattered indictment of Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden.
A look at his rhetoric and how they compare with the facts:
TRUMP vs. FAUCI
TRUMP: “Dr. Fauci at the beginning said, ‘This will pass. Don’t worry about it. This will pass.’ He was wrong.” — interview aired on “Fox News Sunday.”
THE FACTS: Trump is overstating it. While Fauci said in January and February that Americans need not panic about a virus threat at the time, he also said the situation was “evolving” and that public health officials were taking the threat seriously.
“Right now the risk is still low, but this could change, I’ve said that many times,” Fauci told NBC on Feb. 29. He allowed that if there are growing cases of community spread, it could become a “major outbreak.”
“When you start to see community spread, this could change and force you to become much more attentive to doing things that would protect you from spread,” Fauci said.
Fauci never claimed the virus would just “pass” or disappear.
TRUMP: “Dr. Fauci told me not to ban China, it would be a big mistake. I did it over and above his recommendation.” — Fox interview.
THE FACTS: That’s incorrect. While Fauci expressed some initial reservations about travel restrictions on China, he supported the decision by the time it was made.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who was coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force at the time and announced the travel restrictions, said Trump made the decision in late January after accepting the “uniform recommendation of the career public health officials here at HHS.”
While the World Health Organization did advise against the overuse of travel restrictions, Azar told reporters in February that his department’s career health officials had made a “considered recommendation, which I and the president adopted” in a bid to slow spread of the virus.
TRUMP: “I will be right eventually. You know I said, ‘It’s going to disappear.’ I’ll say it again. It’s going to disappear, and I’ll be right.” — Fox interview.
TRUMP: “We’ll put out the flames. … It’s going to be under control.” — Fox interview.
THE FACTS: “The virus is not going to disappear,” according to Fauci.
The number of confirmed cases in the U.S. per day has risen over the past month, hitting over 70,000 this past week, according to a count kept by Johns Hopkins University. That is higher even than what the country experienced from mid-April through early May, when deaths sharply rose.
Fauci has warned that the increase across the South and West “puts the entire country at risk” and that new infections could reach 100,000 a day if people don’t start listening to guidance from public health authorities to wear a mask and practice social distancing.
Arizona, California, Florida and Texas have recently been forced to shut down bars and businesses as virus cases surge. The U.S. currently has more than 3.7 million known cases and many more undetected.
In February, Trump asserted coronavirus cases were going “very substantially down, not up,” and told Fox Business it will be fine because “in April, supposedly, it dies with the hotter weather.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, visiting a hospital Wednesday in Kentucky, acknowledged that some of those early predictions were too rosy. “The straight talk here that everyone needs to understand: This is not going away,” he said.
Fauci says there “certainly” will be coronavirus infections in the fall and winter.
PETER NAVARRO, White House trade adviser: “When Fauci was telling the White House Coronavirus Task Force that there was only anecdotal evidence in support of hydroxychloroquine to fight the virus, I confronted him with scientific studies providing evidence of safety and efficacy. A recent Detroit hospital study showed a 50% reduction in the mortality rate when the medicine is used in early treatment.” — op-ed published Wednesday in USA Today.
THE FACTS: Navarro cherry-picks a study widely criticized as flawed and ignores multiple studies finding hydroxychloroquine doesn’t help.
Numerous rigorous tests of hydroxychloroquine, including a large one from Britain and one led by the National Institutes of Health, concluded that the anti-malaria drug was ineffective for treating hospitalized coronavirus patients. Fauci leads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH.
The Food and Drug Administration also has warned the drug should only be used for the coronavirus in hospitals and research settings because of the risk of serious heart rhythm problems and other safety issues.
The Henry Ford Health System study that Navarro refers to was an observational look back at how various patients fared. It was not a rigorous test where similar patients are randomly assigned to get the drug or not and where each group is compared later on how they did.
In the study, some people with heart or certain other conditions were not given the drugs, which can cause heart rhythm problems, so those patients were fundamentally different from the group they were compared with. Researchers said they adjusted statistically for some differences, but the many variables make it tough to reach firm conclusions.
Some patients also received other treatments such as steroids and the antiviral drug remdesivir, further clouding any ability to tell whether hydroxychloroquine helped.
The White House said Navarro was not authorized to challenge Fauci with the op-ed and should not have done it. But his points largely reflect ones Trump and others in the White House have made themselves.
MORE ON VIRUS THREAT
TRUMP, on what happened after he restricted travel from China: “Nancy Pelosi was dancing on the streets of Chinatown in San Francisco a month later, and even later than that, and others, too.” — Rose Garden remarks Tuesday.
THE FACTS: No she wasn’t. This is Trump’s frequent and fanciful account of the House speaker’s visit to San Francisco’s Chinatown on Feb. 24. That day, she visited shops and strolled the streets to counter the hostility some people in the district were encountering over a virus that emanated from China.
On that day, Pelosi said the public should be vigilant about the virus but the city took precautions and “we should come to Chinatown.” Local TV news tracked her visit;. She wasn’t seen dancing and did not call for a “street fair,” as Trump at times has put it. Community spread of the coronavirus had not yet been reported.
As FactCheck.org pointed out, the same day Pelosi went to Chinatown, Trump tweeted: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health (Organization) have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!” The CDC is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Two days later, Trump asserted that only 15 people in the U.S. were infected and that number would go down “close to zero.” Instead the numbers exploded. More than 3.6 million Americans have had COVID-19.
Trump has accused Pelosi of being “responsible for many deaths” because of the Chinatown visit. He has denied responsibility for any of the deaths sweeping the country as he has persistently minimized the threat, pushed for reopening and refused to take mask-wearing seriously.
TRUMP: “We go out into parking lots and everything, everybody gets a test.” — Fox interview.
THE FACTS: He’s repeating the false notion that anybody who wants a COVID-19 test can get one.
Americans are being confronted with long lines at testing sites. People often are disqualified if they are not showing symptoms and, if they are tested, they sometimes are forced to wait many days for results.
Julie Khani, president of the American Clinical Laboratory Association, which represents LabCorp, Quest Diagnostics and other labs, has made clear that “the anticipated demand for COVID-19 testing over the coming weeks will likely exceed members’ testing capacities.” This past week the group encouraged members to give priority to “those most in need, especially hospitalized and symptomatic patients.”
Many governors and local officials say they cannot meet the demand.
“Testing has been a challenge everywhere,” says Utah Republican Gov. Gary Herbert.
Around Seattle, for instance, a new wave of patients is showing up at emergency departments, said nurse Mike Hastings.
“What’s really frustrating from my side of it is when a patient comes into the emergency department, and is not really having symptoms of COVID, but they feel like they need that testing,” said Hastings, who is president of the Emergency Nurses Association. “Sometimes we’re not able to test them because we don’t have enough test supplies, so we’re only testing a certain set of patients.”
TRUMP: “Cases are up, because we have the best testing in the world and we have the most testing.” — Fox interview.
THE FACTS: It’s not true that infections are high only because the U.S. diagnostic testing has increased. Trump’s own top public health officials have shot down this line of thinking. Infections are rising because people are infecting each other more than they were when most everyone was hunkered down.
Increased testing does contribute to the higher numbers, but there’s more to it. Testing in fact has uncovered a worrisome trend: The percentage of tests coming back positive for the virus is on the rise across nearly the entire country.
That’s a clear demonstration that sickness is spreading and that the U.S. testing system is falling short.
“A high rate of positive tests indicates a government is only testing the sickest patients who seek out medical attention and is not casting a wide enough net,” says the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, a primary source of updated information on the pandemic.
TRUMP: “No country has ever done what we’ve done in terms of testing. We are the envy of the world. They call and they say the most incredible job anybody’s done is our job on testing, because we’re going to very shortly be up to 50 million tests. You look at other countries; they don’t even do tests. … They don’t go around have massive areas of testing, and we do.” — Fox interview.
THE FACTS: U.S. testing is not the envy of the world, nor is the U.S. the only country that does mass testing.
U.S. testing on a per capita basis lags other countries that have done a far better job of controlling their outbreaks. State, local and federal officials are warning of the consequences of testing bottlenecks, including tests rendered useless because results come too late.
China has used batch testing, mixing samples and testing them together, as part of a recent campaign to test all 11 million residents of Wuhan. It’s an approach that top U.S. health officials believe could be used to boost U.S. screening, though it’s not clear when pooled testing could become available for wide-scale screenings at U.S. schools and businesses.
“We are nowhere near being able to rein in this virus with the amount of testing we have available at the moment,” said Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University who previously served as Baltimore’s health commissioner.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said test results in parts of the U.S. take as long as a week, which is “too long.”
“You do the testing to find out who’s carrying the virus and then quickly get them isolated so they don’t spread it around,” he said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And it’s very hard to make that work when there’s a long delay built in.”
TRUMP: “I think we have one of the lowest mortality rates in the world.” — Fox interview.
CHRIS WALLACE, host of “Fox News Sunday”: “That’s not true, sir.”
TRUMP: “Number one, low mortality rate.” — Fox interview.
THE FACTS: Trump’s claim is wholly unsupported.
An accurate death rate is impossible to know. Every country tests and counts people differently, and some are unreliable in reporting cases. Without knowing the true number of people who become infected, it cannot be determined what portion of them die.
Using a count kept by Johns Hopkins University, you can compare the number of recorded deaths with the number of reported cases. That count shows the U.S. experiencing more deaths as a percentage of cases than most other countries now being hit hard with the pandemic. The statistics look better for the U.S. when the list is expanded to include European countries that were slammed early on by the virus but now appear to have it under control. Even then, the U.S. is not shown to be among the best in avoiding death.
Such calculations, though, do not provide a reliable measurement of actual death rates because of the variations in testing and reporting, and the Johns Hopkins tally is not meant to be such a measure.
The only way to tell how many cases have gone uncounted, and therefore what percentage of infected people have died from the disease, is to do another kind of test comprehensively, of people’s blood, to find how many people bear immune system antibodies to the virus. Globally, that is only being done in select places.
TRUMP: “If you remember, I was the one that did the European Union very early.” — Fox interview.
THE FACTS: U.S. health officials actually believe Trump was late in restricting travel from parts of Europe.
While Trump imposed travel restrictions on China in late January, he didn’t follow up with many European countries until mid-March. Those delayed travel alerts as well as limited testing contributed to the jump in U.S. cases starting in late February, according to Dr. Anne Schuchat, the No. 2 official at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We clearly didn’t recognize the full importations that were happening,” Schuchat told The Associated Press in May.
TRUMP: “We would’ve had thousands of people additionally die if we let people come in from heavily infected China. But we stopped it. We did a travel ban in January. … By closing up, we saved millions, potentially millions of lives.” — Rose Garden remarks
THE FACTS: He didn’t ban travel from China. He restricted it. Dozens of countries took similar steps to control travel from hot spots before or around the same time the U.S. did.
The U.S. restrictions that took effect Feb. 2 continued to allow travel to the U.S. from China’s Hong Kong and Macao territories over the past five months. The Associated Press reported that more than 8,000 Chinese and foreign nationals based in those territories entered the U.S. in the first three months after the travel restrictions were imposed.
Additionally, more than 27,000 Americans returned from mainland China in the first month after the restrictions took effect. U.S. officials lost track of more than 1,600 of them who were supposed to be monitored for virus exposure.
Few doubt that the heavy death toll from COVID-19 would be even heavier if world travel had not been constricted globally. But Trump has no scientific basis to claim that his action alone saved “millions” or even “hundreds of thousands” of lives, as he has put it.
TRUMP, on Biden: “He opposed my very strict travel ban on Chinese nationals to stop the spread of the China virus. He was totally against it. ‘Xenophobic,’ he called me. ‘Xenophobic.’ A month later, he admitted I was right.” — Rose Garden.
THE FACTS: No, Biden did not come out against the travel restrictions on China. He said little about them at the time. In April, his campaign said he supported travel restrictions if “guided by medical experts.”
Biden did say Trump has a record of xenophobia, a comment made during an Iowa campaign event when the restrictions were announced. Biden said Trump was “fear-mongering” against foreigners and the Democrat took issue with Trump’s references to the “China virus” as an example. He did not address the travel steps.
Trump has claimed that Biden realized he was right after all about restricting travel from China and wrote him a “letter of apology.” This didn’t happen, either.
TRUMP: “Biden wants to defund the police.” — Fox interview.
THE FACTS: To be clear, Biden has not joined the call of protesters who demanded “defund the police” after George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis. He’s proposed more money for police, conditioned to improvements in their practices.
“I don’t support defunding the police,“ Biden said last month in a CBS interview. But he said he would support tying federal aid to police based on whether “they meet certain basic standards of decency, honorableness and, in fact, are able to demonstrate they can protect the community, everybody in the community.”
Biden’s criminal justice agenda, released long before he became the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee, proposes more federal money for “training that is needed to avert tragic, unjustifiable deaths” and hiring more officers to ensure that departments are racially and ethnically reflective of the populations they serve.
Specifically, he calls for a $300 million infusion into existing federal community policing grant programs.
That adds up to more money for police, not defunding law enforcement.
Biden also wants the federal government to spend more on education, social services and struggling areas of cities and rural America, to address root causes of crime.
TRUMP: “I built the greatest economy ever built anywhere in the world; not only of this country, anywhere in the world, until we got hit with the China virus.” — Fox interview.
THE FACTS: Not true. The economy was healthy back then but not the best in U.S. history, much less world history.
Economic gains largely followed along the lines of an expansion that started more than a decade ago under President Barack Obama. And while posting great job and stock market numbers, Trump never managed to achieve the rates of economic growth he promised in the 2016 campaign. The U.S. economy was not the world’s best in history when this started.
TRUMP: “I got soldiers the biggest pay raises in the history of our military.” — Fox interview.
THE FACTS: Trump often boasts about the size of the military pay raises under his administration, but there’s nothing extraordinary about them.
Several raises in the past decade have been larger than service members are getting under Trump — 3.1% this year, 2.6% last year, 2.4% in 2018 and 2.1% in 2017.
Raises in 2008, 2009 and 2010, for example, were all 3.4% or more.
Pay increases shrank after that because of congressionally mandated budget caps. Trump and Congress did break a trend that began in 2011 of pay raises that hovered between 1% and 2%.
AP Chief Medical Writer Marilynn Marchione in Milwaukee and Associated Press writer Will Weissert in Washington contributed to this report.
EDITOR’S NOTE — A look at the veracity of claims by political figures.
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