Washington: President Donald Trump has not proved to be the bearer of reliable information when calamity threatens and people want straight answers about it. That's happening again as he addresses the prospect of a coronavirus outbreak in the US.
With numbers still low, but the first death in the US now reported, the infectious disease risks not only public health but the economy he holds up to voters for his re-election. To date, his comments have largely seemed intended to put a positive spin on hard information from the scientists, as if he were wishing the problem away.
US President Donald Trump kisses the American flag after speaking at Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday.Credit:AP
Trump's comment Friday night, characterising Democratic criticism of the administration’s response to the virus as a “hoax,” lent weight to the perception that he's minimising the potential for harm in search of political gain. He emphasised Saturday that he does not consider the coronavirus threat a hoax – only the pushback from Democrats.
Trump has a record of unreliability on this front. In one hurricane episode, he displayed a map doctored to reflect his personal and ill-founded theory that Alabama would take it on the chin. In another, he dismissed the Puerto Rico death toll as a concoction by Democrats.
He was fast off the mark to describe the injuries suffered by US service members from an Iranian missile attack as little more than headaches, when it turned out scores suffered traumatic brain injury.
For their part, Democrats have been quick to criticise the Trump administration – at times too quick. Several presidential candidates described the federal response as hampered by Trump budget cuts, which have not happened, and by a decimated public-health bureaucracy, despite the top-of-class scientists steering the effort.
Here are the facts behind some of the political rhetoric of the past week, on the virus and more.
TRUMP: "We are rapidly developing a vaccine. … The vaccine is coming along well, and in speaking to the doctors, we think this is something that we can develop very rapidly." – news conference Wednesday.
THE FACTS: No vaccine is imminent for the coronavirus.
A candidate vaccine for the virus causing COVID-19 is approaching first-step safety tests, but federal experts say anything widely usable is probably more than a year away.
"We can't rely on a vaccine over the next several months," said Dr Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease chief at the National Institutes of Health.
TRUMP: "The level of death with Ebola – you know, at the time, it was a virtual 100 per cent. … There's a very good chance you're not going to die. It's very much the opposite. You're talking about 1 or 2 per cent, whereas in the other case, it was a virtual 100 per cent. Now they have it; they have studied it. They know very much. In fact, we're very close to a vaccine." – news conference Tuesday in New Delhi.
THE FACTS: "Close" is not correct. A vaccine has already been developed for Ebola. The FDA approved an Ebola vaccine in December. Even before its US approval, it was being used in Congo to help stem the current outbreak.
TRUMP, on US coronavirus cases: "We're going down, not up. We're going very substantially down, not up." – news conference Wednesday.
THE FACTS: That was false assurance. He was referring to the fact that most of the people he cited as having COVID-19 in the U.S. are getting better. But that is not indicative of the spread or containment of the disease since most victims, by far, recover.
Cases in the US are almost certain to increase, his own officials have said repeatedly, and he acknowledged as much on Saturday.
TRUMP: "Unfortunately, one person passed away overnight. She was a wonderful woman, a medically high-risk patient in her late 50s." – news conference Saturday.
THE FACTS: The patient who died of the disease was a man. Dr Robert Redfield, director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said the CDC mistakenly told Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence that the victim was female.
TRUMP: "The flu in our country kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year; that was shocking to me. And so far, if you look at what we have with the 15 people, and they are recovering."
THE FACTS: His remarks on the coronavirus risks are misleading. Scientists don't know enough about how deadly the new virus actually is, and so far it hasn't infected nearly as many people as the flu. Of the cases cited by Trump, they are not "all recovering." One died and four others are "very ill," he said Saturday.
Flu deaths fluctuate depending on which strain is circulating and how well each year's vaccine is working, but Trump's cited range is in the ballpark. Two flu seasons ago, the CDC estimated there were 80,000 US deaths, the highest death toll in at least four decades. This year's flu season isn't as deadly; so far this season, the CDC estimates there have been 16,000 to 41,000 deaths from the flu.
As to COVID-19, an illness characterised by fever and coughing and in serious cases shortness of breath or pneumonia, there are now at least 60 cases in the US. In addition to the ones Trump cited, 45 were among groups the US government evacuated and quarantined either from China or the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
In the hardest-hit part of China, the death rate from the new coronavirus was between 2 per cent and 4 per cent, while in other parts of China it was 0.7 per cent. In contrast, the death rate from seasonal flu on average is about 0.1 per cent, said Fauci, of the US National Institutes of Health. That's far lower than what has been calculated so far for COVID-19. But millions of people get the flu every year around the world, leading to a global annual death toll in the hundreds of thousands.
MIKE BLOOMBERG: "There's nobody here to figure out what the hell we should be doing. And he's defunded – he's defunded Centres for Disease Control, CDC, so we don't have the organisation we need. This is a very serious thing." – Democratic presidential debate Tuesday.
JOE BIDEN, comparing the Obama-Biden administration with now: "We increased the budget of the CDC. We increased the NIH budget. … He's wiped all that out. … He cut the funding for the entire effort."
THE FACTS: They're both wrong to say the agencies have seen their money cut. Bloomberg is repeating the false allegation in a new ad that states the US is unprepared for the virus because of "reckless cuts" to the CDC. Trump's budgets have proposed cuts to public health, only to be overruled by Congress, where there's strong bipartisan support for agencies such as the CDC and NIH. Instead, financing has increased.
Indeed, the money that government disease detectives first tapped to fight the latest outbreak was a congressional fund created for health emergencies.
Some public health experts say a bigger concern than White House budgets is the steady erosion of a CDC grant program for state and local public health emergency preparedness – the front lines in detecting and battling new disease. But that decline was set in motion by a congressional budget measure that predates Trump.
The broader point about there being "nobody here" to co-ordinate the response sells short what's in place to handle an outbreak.
The public health system has a playbook to follow for pandemic preparation – regardless of who's president or whether specific instructions are coming from the White House. Public-health experts outside government have praised the CDC's work so far and noted that its top scientific ranks have remained stable during the past three years.
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