Every single factual claim in a tweet President Donald Trump posted on Monday morning about the state of US coronavirus testing is either blatantly false or misleading.
While there’s legitimately good news on the testing front the president could be talking about, like a steady increase in the number of tests completed per day, his latest public comment on the issue reads like a 279-character greatest hits of his favorite bogus talking points — blaming former President Barack Obama for a delay in test availability, overstating how much testing the US has already done, and turning a blind eye to ongoing supply shortages the federal government has done little to solve.
Trump wants people to believe that coronavirus testing in the US has been a resounding success and that there’s already enough testing capacity to reopen businesses — and thereby resuscitate the economy ahead of November’s election. Progress is in fact being made, but we’re not there yet. And since the president has largely left states to fend for themselves when it comes to building out testing capacity, he really shouldn’t be trying to take credit for recent tentative successes.
Trump packed four false or misleading claims into a single tweet
“Wow! The Front Page @washingtonpost Headline reads, ‘A BOOST IN TESTS, BUT LACK OF TAKERS,’” Trump tweeted on Monday morning. “We have done a great job on Ventilators, Testing, and everything else. Were left little by Obama. Over 11 million tests, and going up fast. More than all countries in the world, combined.”
Wow! The Front Page @washingtonpost Headline reads, “A BOOST IN TESTS, BUT LACK OF TAKERS.” We have done a great job on Ventilators, Testing, and everything else. Were left little by Obama. Over 11 million tests, and going up fast. More than all countries in the world, combined.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2020
Before we get to the Post story Trump referenced, it’s worth mentioning that his claim about being “left little by Obama” is completely absurd. As I’ve previously detailed on other occasions when Trump has tried to pin blame for testing issues on his predecessor, the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19 didn’t even exist until nearly three years after Obama left office. So Obama would’ve had to have been some sort of time traveler to develop coronavirus tests during his term.
It’s also not even close to true that the US has tested “more than all countries in the world, combined.” According to data compiled by Worldometer, while the US leads the world with 11.9 million tests conducted as of May 18, the next three countries on the list — Russia (7.1 million), Germany (3.1 million), and Spain (3 million) — have done more tests together than the US. So it isn’t correct to claim that the US has done more tests than the next three countries combined, let alone the entire rest of the world.
And the US is nowhere near the top of the list when it comes to tests conducted per 1 million people. On that list, the US ranks an unimpressive 39th. And while Trump is in the habit of touting the raw numbers of tests conducted because it portrays his coronavirus response in the best possible light, he’s reluctant to discuss the total numbers of deaths — the more than 90,000 deaths that have occurred in the US is more than double that of the second hardest-hit country (the UK, with more than 34,000).
There’s real good news that Trump could be talking about
There’s no denying the US has made significant progress on testing over the past six weeks — according to the Covid Tracking Project, the 422,024 tests completed on Sunday were a single-day high — but the country is still falling short of the 500,000 tests per day experts believe is the minimum necessary to fully control the outbreak.
Ironically, the Washington Post story Trump cited details how the federal government is hampering efforts to get the country above that 500,000 threshold. While the article — written by Steve Thompson, Juliet Eilperin, and Brady Dennis — does discuss how some states have more testing capacity than they do people seeking tests, it also details how a lack of supplies and a national testing strategy is making it difficult if not impossible for states to put that capacity to good use.
From the article:
Lab capacity remains untapped for many reasons, including lingering supply shortages. While most states say they are now able to test people in hospitals, nursing homes, prisons and other front-line settings, many continue to be hampered by a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), nasal swabs and reagents, the chemicals necessary to process tests.
A national strategy could make [efforts to test more people] more effective, said Danielle Allen, director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, which last week published a $74 billion road map that calls for 24-hour contact tracing and isolation facilities for people who test positive. Although many states are building those services, the patchwork approach means scarce resources may not be efficiently deployed.
Instead of deploying the massive resources of the federal government to procure nasal swabs and reagents, Trump has largely left states to fend for themselves. Some, like Maryland, have resorted to buying test kits from foreign governments since help from their own hasn’t been sufficient. And rather than develop a national testing strategy, Trump has been pushing for states to reopen their economies even though very few if any meet the gating criteria for doing so developed by his own administration’s coronavirus task force.
REOPEN OUR COUNTRY!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2020
While US testing numbers have been improving, coronavirus deaths in the country are still between 1,000 and 2,000 most days, meaning the country is on track to hit 100,000 coronavirus deaths before the end of the month.
One of the reasons the coronavirus outbreak has been so bad in the US is because the country fell way short on testing in February and March, allowing the coronavirus to spread across the country in a largely undetected manner. When Trump compares America’s raw testing numbers favorably with other countries, he leaves out the crucial context that governments in South Korea, Germany, and elsewhere were able to get the coronavirus under control early because they had more testing capacity during a critical period.
That’s not to say that Trump shouldn’t share good news about increases in testing capacity with the American public. But it’s worth noting that even in cases when the truth would suffice, he can’t help himself from unleashing a blizzard of false and misleading claims.
Support Vox’s explanatory journalism
Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.