Fact-Checking President Trump’s ‘Historic Coronavirus Response’ Brief

Credit: Alex Wong / Staff / Getty Images

The White House released a brief on Monday titled “President Trump’s Historic Coronavirus Response Brief,” which outlines the supposed ways the president has successfully combated the novel coronavirus. The United States’ response to Covid-19 is globally considered an ongoing failure, however, and the brief contains several inaccuracies or exaggerations. The U.S. is currently leading the world in the number of people who have been killed by the virus at over 165,300 at publication time. We’ve fact-checked the “key takeaways” from the White House brief below.

KEY TAKEAWAYS:

“Took early action to cut off travel from China”

The U.S. was neither ahead or after the curve in restricting travel from China. The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern on January 30. The same day, the State Department raised its travel advisory for China to “Level 4 — Do Not Travel.” In doing so, the U.S. was acting in accordance with many other countries. According to ThinkGlobalHealth, a Council for Foreign Relations program that has tracked the countries that have imposed travel bans on China, 36 countries including the U.S. had imposed travel restrictions by February 2. At the time of the January 30 announcement, the World Health Organization did “not recommend any travel or trade restriction.” Due to its poor handling of the coronavirus outbreak, the U.S. has been on the receiving end of many international travel bans: as of August 7, there are only 34 countries, many of them Caribbean islands, that Americans can travel to. — Yasmin Tayag

“Built the world’s leading testing system from nothing

By far one of the greatest critiques of the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic is that the country has bungled testing. In the first few critical months of the pandemic, most people who did not have symptoms of the virus were unable to be tested, which allowed the virus to spread unchecked in cities all across the country. Now, six months into the pandemic, there remains a testing backlog, which is forcing people to wait several days, and in many cases, up to two weeks before getting results. This means that people who are positive could spread the virus during that wait time, and people who did not have the virus when they were tested might unknowingly get infected during the period they are waiting for results. The most basic public health standard for managing an infectious disease is testing and contact tracing. The United States does not have a coordinated national response for either. Instead, some states are banding together to create their own testing plans and urge test manufacturers to produce more rapid-tests for their states. Countries that have successfully curbed the virus have done extensive testing and contract tracing, and the U.S. is not one of these countries. — Alexandra Sifferlin

“Enacted mitigation measures to slow the spread”

Widespread testing is considered the most crucial tool in slowing the spread of the coronavirus, but the Trump administration failed to support and improve it (and continues to at present): The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it had begun shipping its tests to select public health laboratories on February 3, but these were soon found to be “unreliable.” Well into the next couple of months, even as commercial tests were given emergency use approval, U.S. testing numbers lagged far behind those of other nations. After it was confirmed that transmission through human contact and asymptomatic transmission were possible, the Trump administration was slow to issue federal guidelines about social distancing and hygiene. It was not until March 9 that the White House released guidelines on handwashing, distancing, and isolating the sick, though enforcing these recommendations was left to state governors. On March 20, Trump said he did not think a nationwide lockdown would be ever necessary and he has never called for one. He did not endorse mask-wearing until late July. — Yasmin Tayag

“Mobilized public and private sectors to secure needed supplies”

The Trump administration says it has invoked the Defense Production Act — a law that gives the president significant emergency authority to control domestic industries — more than 30 times. However, critics on all points of the political spectrum critiqued the White House in the beginning of the pandemic for its hesitancy to invoke the act and secure medical supplies. While the administration has encouraged companies to ramp up supply manufacturing — like pressing General Motors to make ventilators — there are still critics who say there’s not enough being done to secure U.S. supply chains. In a New York Times article published July 22, experts in national security said there remains no national strategy to prevent shortages. “What the federal government — the president or secretaries possessing delegated authority — have not done yet is use the D.P.A. to create a permanent, sustainable, redundant, domestic supply chain for all things pandemic: testing, swabs, N95 masks, etc.,” Jamie Baker, a professor of national security law at Syracuse University, told the Times. — Alexandra Sifferlin

“Took action to protect vulnerable Americans

The White House memo highlights the guidelines it issued for elderly Americans as an action to protect vulnerable Americans. On March 6, it encouraged them to stay at home as much as possible, but by June, people in nursing homes accounted for 40% of the country’s deaths from Covid-19. There are many other vulnerable people in the United States not mentioned in the memo: Crucially, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people and other people of color have been hit especially hard by the pandemic, largely because they have long experienced, and continue to experience, inequalities that negatively impact their health and disproportionately expose them to infection. Black Americans, according to the Covid Tracking Project, are dying at a rate 2.5 times higher than that of white people, and testing disparities mean Black and Latinx people are more likely to “experience longer wait times and understaffed testing centers,” reported ABC News. Black and Asian Americans have also experienced increased racist abuse during the pandemic that has made mask-wearing a fraught choice. — Yasmin Tayag

“Launched effort to deliver a vaccine and therapeutics in record time”

The administration has launched an effort to ramp up vaccines and therapeutics. Operation Warp Speed aims to deliver 300 million doses of a safe, effective vaccine for Covid-19 by January 2021. Efforts to bring a vaccine to market — both by companies in the U.S. and abroad — are progressing at much faster rates than usual. There is some concern, however, among vaccine experts that the process could move too fast. More than 400 vaccine experts recently signed a letter to Stephen Hahn, the commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), writing that they want to “witness a transparent and rigorous FDA approval process that is devoid of political considerations.” Losing public trust in Covid-19 vaccines due to not taking all the necessary time to confirm a vaccine is safe and effective could be harmful to the cause, they argue. — Alexandra Sifferlin

“Provided support to workers and businesses”

The Trump Administration says the Paycheck Protection Program helped save 51 million American jobs. Some dispute the accuracy of the 51 million figure. A Reuters analysis of the data in July reported that “there were red flags throughout the colossal data set that suggested some borrowers overstated how many jobs their loan salvaged. That, combined with several of the named companies disputing that they took a loan after the government showed otherwise, cast doubt on the accuracy of the 51 million figure.” It is true that the Trump administration “secured direct payments to help the countless Americans who are hurting due to the pandemic,” though there are caveats. President Trump and Congress negotiated a massive expansion of the U.S. unemployment program that included an extra $600 per week on top of the benefit unemployed workers were receiving from their state. But that program expired at the end of July. The White House, however, wanted to reduce the $600 extra benefit while Democrats in Congress wanted to maintain it. In lieu of a new deal, the White House announced an executive action to redirect Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to the unemployed. The program’s efficacy is in doubt as there’s only a fixed amount available without new legislation and would, as the Washington Post reports, only give workers $300 extra per week, not the $400 advertised by the President. — Alexandra Sifferlin

“Paved way for reopening to get America working again”

The Trump administration does have guidelines for reopening the economy, but the President has criticized science-backed reopening guidelines developed by experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). States have individually developed their own phased reopening plans, and some never fully locked down in the first place. States have reopened despite the fact that the United States does not have control of the virus. It’s resulted in widespread cases of Covid-19 from businesses like bars, indoor restaurants, and schools. The White House says in its brief that it “flattened the curve” and “rapidly expanded testing,” neither of which are true. Cases of Covid-19 continue to rise and wait time for tests remain up to two weeks. — Alexandra Sifferlin

“Surged resources to hot spots as they arose”

At the beginning of the pandemic, the White House denied pleas from state governors and health care officials for personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical tools: “Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment — try getting it yourselves,” the president told governors in March. There was a dire shortage of N95 masks, which frontline health care workers needed to protect themselves, in mid-March. As mentioned above, Trump resisted invoking the Defense Production Act, which would allow the country to direct private companies to make PPE; it was finally used to compel General Motors to build ventilators at the end of March, and 3M was asked to make masks in early April. Around that time, the president criticized a watchdog report from the Health and Human Services inspector general’s office that said hospitals were in dire need of PPE and tests, saying “It is wrong.” Today, there are still severe testing shortages across the country due to lack of tests and unequal distribution of resources, especially in communities of color. — Yasmin Tayag

“Confronted China as origin of the virus while Democrats and media cowered”

Scientists widely agree that the coronavirus has a natural origin and jumped to humans from an animal, most likely bats. Still the president has frequently blamed China for the virus and referred to Covid-19 as the “China virus” or “Wuhan virus” in public addresses. In doing so he incorrectly conflated the location of the first known outbreak, which is Wuhan, with the origin of the virus, the location of which is unknown. Trump blamed China for the pandemic when he made his decision to remove the U.S. from the World Health Organization at the end of May.

Scientists also widely agree that the virus was not bioengineered. But at the end of April, Trump also gave undue credence to the conspiracy theory that the virus emerged from a Wuhan lab, saying in a White House press conference: “We’re looking at it; a lot of people are looking at it; it seems to make sense.” He has been widely criticized for blaming China for the virus because doing so has resulted in increased xenophobia in the U.S. This xenophobia, which had already worsened as a result of deteriorating China-U.S. relations on matters that are not Covid-19 related, has made life dangerous for many Chinese-Americans and other Asian-Americans. Experts warn that a poor relationship between the two countries will hinder the international cooperation required to beat a global pandemic. — Yasmin Tayag

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