“We have tested over 40 million people. By so doing, we show cases, 99 percent of which are totally harmless. Results that no other country will show, because no other country has testing that we have — not in terms of the numbers or in terms of the quality.”
— President Trump, remarks at the White House, July 4, 2020
This is one of those presidential statements that even Trump’s aides have trouble explaining.
“The president isn’t downplaying the severity of the virus,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters July 6 when questioned about his statistic. “What the president is noting is that, at the height of this pandemic, we were at 2,500 deaths per day. We are now at a place where, on July Fourth, there were 254; that’s a tenfold decrease in mortality.”
“When you start to look at the stats and look at all the numbers that we have, the amount of testing that we have, the vast majority of people are safe from this,” White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told “Fox and Friends” on July 6. “When you look at the deaths that we have, if you’re over 80 years of age or if you have three, what they call co-morbidities — diabetes, hypertension, heart issues — then you need to be very, very careful. Outside of that, the risks are extremely low and the president’s right with that, and the facts and the statistics back us up there.”
Neither of those answers actually explain how the president came up with 99 percent. That’s because the math doesn’t work. It’s an inexact science, but here’s what we know.
The Trump administration bungled testing at the onset of the pandemic, allowing the coronavirus to spread silently through the United States. In recent months, testing has greatly expanded, though the United States still lags behind several other large nations, such as the United Kingdom and Spain, in testing per capita — which is a much better metric than raw numbers of tests, given the size of the United States.
(Trump often brags that the United States has done more tests than any other country. China in June claimed that it has carried out three times as many tests as the United States, but on a per capita basis, it has done half as many as the United States.)
Trump and other officials have argued that the sudden spurt in cases is the result of more widespread testing. As Meadows put it on “Fox and Friends”: “Obviously, the narrative is that the covid cases are rising. But testing is rising exponentially.”
Or, as Trump tweeted on July 2: “There is a rise in Coronavirus cases because our testing is so massive and so good, far bigger and better than any other country. This is great news, but even better news is that death, and the death rate, is DOWN.”
This happy talk is contradicted by the administration’s own health experts.
“There is no question that the more testing you get, the more you will uncover, but we do believe this is a real increase in cases because of the percent positivities are going up. So this is real increases in cases,” Adm. Brett Giroir, the Department of Health and Human Services official overseeing the nation’s coronavirus testing efforts, told Congress on July 2.
Giroir added: “We really do believe the current outbreak is primarily due to under-35s with a lot of gatherings, not appropriate protection like masks.”
Experience so far is that younger people are less likely than older people to die of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. That’s a possible explanation for why the death rate has not yet spiked to the levels seen earlier in the pandemic, when the virus spread through nursing homes, leading to many deaths. If many of the new cases are younger people, then it follows that fewer deaths would result.
But the number of hospitalizations has begun to spike again after declining steadily — and ending up in the hospital is not “totally harmless.” (The rate of new hospitalizations from covid-19 cases has declined from 8 percent in early June to 4 percent in July.)
At the moment, the data show that slightly more than 4 percent of the cases in the United States have led to death. The count at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which lags behind private data, indicates a death rate of nearly 4.5 percent.
Johns Hopkins University, in a comparison of the observed case-fatality rate of the 20 countries most affected by covid-19, calculates that the United States ranked seventh worst, with 4.4 percent. The United States ranks second-worst in terms of deaths per 100,000 people.
The big unknown is how many cases are undetected, as many people who contract the coronavirus do not show symptoms. The CDC has tested blood samples in six states to check for coronavirus antibodies, and results suggest anywhere from six to 24 times more cases than detected. But as we have noted before, there is also evidence that the official death count is much too low. So without precise numbers, it’s difficult to make even a rough calculation.
The World Health Organization in March said that “for covid-19, data to date suggest that 80% of infections are mild or asymptomatic, 15% are severe infection, requiring oxygen and 5% are critical infections, requiring ventilation.” A review of 21 reports in April indicated that as few as 5 percent and as many as 80 percent are asymptomatic. Neither of those figures comes close to 99 percent.
A person who does not notice any symptoms at all might consider the disease “totally harmless.” But that person can still infect a family member, a close friend or someone else — who could die of the disease or be permanently impaired.
There is no evidence to support Trump’s claims that 99 percent of the people who contract the coronavirus find it “totally harmless.” He earns Four Pinocchios.
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