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Trump baselessly claims Covid-19 testing is “overrated” and people wear masks to spite him

Trump’s strange new claims perfectly encapsulates the US’s inadequate Covid-19 response.

President Donald Trump made bizarre claims about Covid-19 tests and masks during a new Wall Street Journal interview.
Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

President Donald Trump suggested in a new interview that some Americans may be wearing masks not to prevent the spread of Covid-19 but to spite him — and that testing for the deadly coronavirus is “overrated.”

That bewildering pair of comments, delivered during his wide-ranging Wall Street Journal interview that covered everything from Trump’s upcoming campaign rally on Juneteenth to newly reported details from former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s upcoming book, managed to both needlessly politicize basic health precautions and dismiss the importance of surveilling through testing a disease that has killed at least 118,000 Americans.

Trump said explicitly that, even if there is a worrying reemergence of the virus, he would not pursue the kind of dramatic increase in testing that China did when it tested an entire city after the coronavirus appeared to be spreading widely through the community again.

“I personally think testing is overrated, even though I created the greatest testing machine in history,” Trump said, arguing that more tests means more confirmed cases. “In many ways, it makes us look bad.”

Let’s take these three claims — testing is overrated, Trump created the greatest testing machine of all time, and testing makes us look bad — one at a time.

Whatever the president says, Covid-19 is not “overrated.” Here’s why.

First of all, public health experts say the opposite: Testing is essential to monitoring the spread of the disease and containing new outbreaks. As Vox’s Umair Irfan wrote in April:

Controlling the spread of the pandemic demands finding the infected and isolating them until they can no longer spread the disease, alongside broader measures like social distancing. With an untold number of asymptomatic carriers, the only option to find out who truly has the virus is to test.

Meanwhile, a lack of testing hampers the response to the virus. Health officials can’t preempt outbreaks in new regions. The threat then silently persists, infecting, killing, and draining resources.

You need tests to identify people with mild symptoms, so they can isolate and avoid spreading the virus to other people. You need tests to conduct contact tracing: the tedious work of interviewing people who test positive for Covid-19, finding out with whom they’ve been in close contact, and then informing those people of their potential exposure and asking them to self-isolate and — you guessed it — get tested.

With many essential workers unable to maintain social distancing, we would ideally test those people as often as possible.

“Health care professionals, police officers, EMTs — you may need to actually test them every single day to catch an infection early enough to make sure they are not spreading it to their colleagues,” Paul Romer, a New York University economist, told Irfan. “What I would say right now is a good target would be 35 million per day. You can test everybody every two weeks, and then you’ve got 10 million front-line occupations that you can test every single day.”

So testing is important. So is it true, as Trump claims despite dismissing the value of testing, that America has built a historically great testing regiment?

For starters, recall that federal health agencies bore much of the blame for America’s poor testing in the early weeks of the pandemic. Faulty kits were sent out to labs across the country, and regulatory hurdles slowed the expansion of testing as well. Researchers in Washington state quietly came up with their own test to circumvent the slow federal response.

The US testing numbers have dramatically improved, thankfully. But America’s testing capacity is merely “good’ by international standards — and may still be falling short of what is necessary given the scale of our outbreak.

The US has conducted about 72 tests per 1,000 people, according to Our World In Data. That’s a lower rate than Portugal or Russia or Iceland and about the same as Australia and Italy. Good but hardly warranting “greatest of all time” designations. The number of tests in the US that are coming back positive also suggests we are still not adequately surveilling Covid-19 compared to European countries.

A chart showing the daily US positive test rate far exceeds other comparable nations, at 7 percent. Our World In Data

Which brings us to the last point: Trump says more testing makes the US (read: him) look bad. It is true that more testing means more cases will be found, adding to the total case numbers.

But that isn’t why experts are concerned right now. When you conduct more tests, you would expect the positive test rate to go down, because along with some more positive tests, you would get many more negative ones. So experts are concerned because in states like Arizona and Florida and Texas, the positive test rate is actually increasing. That is what suggests increased spread of Covid-19 is behind some of rising case numbers — not simply more tests being conducted.

Trump also baselessly claimed people are wearing masks to spite him, not to stop Covid-19

On the matter of masks, there is not much to say. This is what Trump told the Wall Street Journal:

The president ... allowed for the possibility that some Americans wore facial coverings not as a preventative measure but as a way to signal disapproval of him.

Mr. Trump said his bigger problem with masks was that many people fidget with the coverings, which he said made them more likely to be infected. The federal government guidelines stipulate that wearing cloth face coverings helps slow the spread of Covid-19 and recommends washing hands before putting on the mask.

“They put their finger on the mask, and they take them off, and then they start touching their eyes and touching their nose and their mouth,” Mr. Trump said. “And then they don’t know how they caught it?”

According to a recent AP/NORC survey, 90 percent of Americans said they have been wearing masks at least some of the time. There is no reason to believe, with widespread adoption, that there is any political motivation. Instead, most people seem to be following the advice of public health experts — which is to wear a mask to curb Covid-19’s spread. Trump, of course, has refused to wear a mask in public, introducing a political dynamic to what should have been nonpartisan public health guidance.

He is right, however, that people should be careful to not impede the effectiveness of masks by fiddling while wearing one. Trump managed to accidentally dispense a modicum of useful advice for WSJ readers.

The masks riff was not the only unsubstantiated claim Trump made regarding the Covid-19 pandemic: He also suggested China might have allowed the coronavirus to spread as some kind of economic bioweapon, even as he admitted he had nothing but intuition to back the assertion:

The president said he had no intelligence to support that claim, only an internal sense. He said there was a better chance it was incompetence or a mistake. “I don’t think they would do that,” Mr. Trump said about the possibility of Beijing letting coronavirus spread beyond China. “But you never know. But it has had an impact.”

You might recall that Trump was very complimentary to China’s handling of the Covid-19 outbreak in the early days — and that, according to Bolton’s book, he has asked the Chinese government to help him win reelection by supporting his trade policies.

The smattering of non sequiturs, misleading spin, and baseless assertions was, oddly but appropriately enough, an excellent encapsulation of all the ways in which the US’s Covid-19 response has gone wrong. Whatever Trump might claim, America has categorically failed to contain its outbreak like its peers in Europe have.

A chart showing rolling 3-day averages comparing the US’s flat line to the European union’s downward slope. Our World In Data

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