Amid concerns that the US government response to the global coronavirus threat has been underwhelming, President Donald Trump minimized concerns over the novel virus while praising his decision-making and attacking his enemies over the illness at a Tuesday press conference during a state visit to India.
The novel coronavirus — and Covid-19, the disease it causes — “is very well under control in our country,” Trump told reporters, adding, “We have very few people with it, and the people that have it are in all cases [doing well], I have not heard anything other [than that].”
He went on to claim, “We’re really down to probably 10, most of the people are outside of danger right now.”
Trump on coronavirus: "We're really down to probably about 10 [cases]." (More than two dozen Americans had the illness as of yesterday.) pic.twitter.com/pZHkrG9FlT— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 25, 2020
It is possible that as president of the United States, Trump has access to some Covid-19 information that isn’t publicly available — although he did say Tuesday he hasn’t “been seeing too much of [Covid-19] news” because his India trip has “been all-encompassing” — but the statistic he cited is at odds with data collected by researchers at Johns Hopkins, which finds there are 53 confirmed Covid-19 cases in the US.
Trump also claimed — without offering evidence — that Americans need not be overly concerned by Covid-19 because everyone will soon be protected from the novel virus.
“Now they have it, they have studied it, they know very much, in fact, we’re very close to a vaccine,” Trump said.
Scientists are certainly hard at work on one: Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization announced Sunday that it has begun production on a test vaccine, and scientists in the US and elsewhere are continuing their vaccine research. But as the Icahn School of Medicine’s Fatima Amanat and Florian Krammer note, going from testing a vaccine to having one that is available for use can take anywhere from six to 18 months, if not longer. So, despite what the president said, we really aren’t yet “close” to a vaccine.
Beyond attempting to downplay concerns, Trump also used the coronavirus as an opportunity to attack Democrats, who have reportedly offered pointed critiques of the administration’s coronavirus response in private.
“A lot of talent, a lot of brainpower is being put behind [fighting the coronavirus]: $2.5 billion we’re putting in,” Trump said. “I see that [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer criticized it; he thought it should be more. And if I gave more, he’d say it should be less. It’s automatic, you know, with these characters — they’re just not good for our country.”
It is true that whipping the public into a panic over Covid-19 is neither wise nor helpful, particularly since the US has not seen the level of cases other countries like South Korea and Iran have faced.
But it is important that the president not minimize the potential severity of the novel virus, as US health officials do not have as accurate a picture of the current state of Covid-19 cases in the US. Efforts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to expand testing of people exhibiting Covid-19-related symptoms have faced serious delays, meaning there could be more Covid-19 cases than are currently realized.
Given this uncertainty, and that it means there could be people unknowingly sharing Covid-19, it is important that the government take thoughtful action and listen to its experts, like those at the CDC who asked Tuesday that the “American public prepare for the expectation that this might be bad” — to ensure the coronavirus spread doesn’t worsen in the US. And Trump’s comments Tuesday, as well as his administration’s actions over the past few weeks, would make it appear this is not what is happening.
And while Trump used Covid-19 as a cudgel to attack Democrats, a Senate hearing about Trump’s homeland security budget in Washington indicated that even Republicans are unimpressed with the administration’s response.
During that hearing, Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) rebuked acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf after he provided evasive answers to questions about exactly how many cases government officials expect in the country, telling him, “You’re the secretary. I think you ought to know that answer.”
"You're the secretary. I think you oughta know that answer" -- Even @SenJohnKennedy (R) is fed up with Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf's ignorance about coronavirus pic.twitter.com/yx1anMAAFV— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 25, 2020
The Trump administration has been criticized for its coronavirus response — and it isn’t clear it has taken those criticisms to heart
While the US is certainly in better shape than mainland China, where there are currently more than 77,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases, it is not clear that the president is correct in his assertion that the novel virus “is very well under control.”
As Vox’s Matt Yglesias has written, Trump has faced criticism for leaving the US’s coronavirus response leaderless, noting that “in fall 2014, the Obama administration appointed Ron Klain to serve as ‘Ebola czar’ — a single official in charge of coordinating the response across the government.” The Trump administration Covid-19 response, however, has been handled by disparate agencies, sometimes each with their own ideas about how to proceed.
And Trump has been accused of appearing to argue the virus will essentially take care of itself, tweeting that cases will diminish “as the weather starts to warm & the virus hopefully becomes weaker, and then gone.”
While warmer temperatures do limit the spread of certain viruses, like many that cause influenza, it isn’t clear whether the novel coronavirus is one of these. There are still many things scientists don’t understand about this coronavirus, and most experts say more research is needed in order to understand whether the weather will have any effect on transmission.
The need for more research is yet another count on which the Trump administration has faced criticism. The president’s budget proposals have repeatedly called for cuts to the CDC, including the budget released this February, which also called for cuts to the National Institutes of Health.
The CDC has been instrumental in helping to understand the virus and coordinate efforts to fight it. It also advised against a decision to fly back Americans who had been quarantined in Japan and had contracted Covid-19 on the same plane as those who tested negative for the disease — advice the Trump administration ignored.
Director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy Michael Osterholm told Politico the decision “was one of the cruelest human experiments I’ve seen in my entire career.”
Trump reportedly expressed in private that he was upset with the decision, which could have easily led to healthy Americans being infected, but on Tuesday he placed the blame for it elsewhere while suggesting there was nothing wrong with it.
“I felt that, and the decision was made in Japan, let these Americans come back, and we’ll see where they are,” the president said. “But they were immediately put into quarantine, there’s no problem with it whatsoever, they were immediately put into quarantine.”
Trump went on to congratulate himself for another decision that ran counter to the advice of health experts (this time at the World Health Organization): denying US entry to any noncitizen who has traveled to China in the past 14 days.
“The United States, because of an early decision I made, I made a decision, I believe like it’s the first time it’s ever been done, we closed the country to certain areas, as you know,” Trump said. “And I was criticized for that decision, now they say it’s a good decision.”
As Vox’s Julia Belluz and Steven Hoffman have explained, public health officials have long argued that travel bans don’t help stop the spread of disease and can actually make neutralizing an illness more difficult.
All this makes it unclear how prepared the Trump administration would be in the event that US Covid-19 cases worsen. For now, however, the president is asking Americans to trust him, saying, “you know, we did the right thing.”