Truth Can Be Harder to Find Than Waldo

President Donald Trump plays catch with former New York Yankees Hall of Fame pitcher Mariano Rivera as he greets youth baseball players on the South Lawn of the White House to mark Opening Day for Major League Baseball on July 23, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump in recent days suddenly acknowledged the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic and edged away from some of his most audacious falsehoods about it. That’s not to say he gave the public an honest accounting.

Trump minimized the risk to children and those around them as he advocated reopening schools. He marveled again at the number of Covid-19 tests being performed in the United States even as the overwhelmed testing system crucially fails to deliver sufficient access and timely results.

And he claimed a low U.S. death rate from Covid-19 compared with other countries, though the global statistics contradict him.

All this while he canceled Republican National Convention events in Jacksonville, Florida, bowing to the reality that many Republicans were reluctant to go a state where the virus is out of control.

And his press secretary peddled false internet rumors that the “cancel culture” led to the cancellation of a cartoon about puppies.

Here is a review of some statements from the past week.

Virus testing

TRUMP, on the United States approaching 50 million tests: “This allows us to isolate those who are infected, even those without symptoms. So we know exactly where it’s going and when it’s going to be there.” — briefing Tuesday

THE FACTS: This is False.

In many if not most parts of the country, people who manage to get a test can wait for days or weeks for the results because labs are overwhelmed. In the meantime, those people could be and in some cases surely are spreading infection. And many people who want a test but report no symptoms can’t get one.

Some labs are taking weeks to return Covid-19 results because of the crushing workload from the surge of new cases.

“There’s been this obsession with, ‘How many tests are we doing per day?'” said Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The question is, how many tests are being done with results coming back within a day, where the individual tested is promptly isolated and their contacts are promptly warned?”

Children and Covid-19

TRUMP on young people and the virus: “Now, they don’t catch it easily; they don’t bring it home easily. And if they do catch it, they get better fast. We’re looking at that fact.” — briefing Wednesday.

THE FACTS: That is not a fact. He doesn’t have the science to reach this broad conclusion.

His coronavirus task force coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, and other public health officials have said repeatedly that while children appear to get less sick from the virus than adults, the threat to young people and their ability to spread the virus are not understood because not enough research has been done on children and Covid-19 and its transmission.

Birx underscored the point Friday on NBC’s “Today” show. Whether children under 10 spread the virus the same as older children “is still an open question” she said.

“We know that children under 18 are less sick, but there are some that suffer terrible consequences if they have underlying conditions,” she said. “Children under 10 do get infected. It’s just unclear how rapidly they spread the virus.”

Trump has been pushing for schools to reopen and has threatened to withhold federal money if they don’t, though he does not have that power.

While his assurances about children were unsupported, they were a step back from his rhetoric that portrayed children as practically immune to infection. “It’s very unique how the children aren’t affected,” he said in early May. “Incredible.”

U.S. death toll

TRUMP on the United States and other countries in the pandemic: “We’ve done much better than most. And with the fatality rate at a lower rate than most, it’s something that we can talk about, but we’re working, again, with them because we’re helping a lot of countries that people don’t even know about.” — briefing Tuesday

THE FACTS: That’s false. The United States has suffered far more recorded infections and deaths from Covid-19 than any other country, including those with larger populations, and it lags a number of other nations in testing and containment.

Trump seems to have edged away from claiming that the U.S. mortality rate is the world’s best, after being confronted a week ago in a Fox News interview with Chris Wallace. His more modest boasts since, though, are also false.

Understanding deaths as a percentage of the population or as a percentage of known infections is problematic because countries track and report Covid-19 deaths and cases differently. No one can reliably rank countries in this regard.

The statistics that do exist fail to support his assertion.

In an analysis of the 20 countries currently most affected by the pandemic, the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center finds the United States with the fourth-worst rate of deaths per 100,000 people — only Britain, Peru and Chile are seeing more reported deaths as a proportion of their populations.

On another measure, looking at what percentage of reported cases lead to death, the United States is in the middle of that pack, with a case-fatality ratio of 3.6%. Trump has claimed, falsely, that the U.S. death rate is no more than 0.1%.

Looking at deaths among all countries, not just the ones most suffering at this stage of the pandemic, the United States fares somewhat better but still not among the best. Its recorded 44 deaths per 100,000 compares favorably with Britain (68.6 per 100,000), Spain (60.8), Italy (58) and Sweden (55.7), for example, but poorly with Canada (24), Brazil (40), Mexico (33) and dozens more countries.

Disparities in reporting are only one reason not to take these numbers conclusively. Many factors are in play in shaping a death toll besides how well a country responded to the pandemic, such as the overall health or youth of national populations.

‘Cancel culture’

‘CANCEL CULTURE’

KAYLEIGH McENANY, White House press secretary, on Trump: “He’s also appalled by cancel culture, and cancel culture specifically as it pertains to cops. We saw a few weeks ago, ‘Paw Patrol,’ a cartoon show about cops was canceled.” — briefing Friday

THE FACTS: No, ‘Paw Patrol’ was not canceled. Fake rumors online said it was. And it’s not about cops. It’s a cartoon about puppies. The lead puppy is a cop. There’s a firefighter puppy, too.

Masks

McENANY, when asked about Trump’s change in tone this past week in urging people to wear masks: “There has been no change. …The president has been consistent on this.” — news briefing Friday

THE FACTS: That’s false. Trump’s messaging has been inconsistent, to say the least.

Trump from the beginning has made clear that wearing masks is voluntary and shunned wearing one in public. He frequently ridiculed Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden for wearing a mask in public.

In May, when a reporter declined to pull down his mask to ask a question at a news briefing so Trump could hear better, the president mocked by saying, “OK, because you want to be politically correct.”

Trump told The Wall Street Journal in June that some people may wear them as a political statement against him.

“People touch them,” he said. “And they grab them and I see it all the time. They come in, they take the mask. Now they’re holding it now in their fingers. And they drop it on the desk and then they touch their eye and they touch their nose. No, I think a mask is a — it’s a double-edged sword.”

Last week, as his poll ratings on the handling of the coronavirus continued falling, Trump Monday tweeted a photo of himself wearing a mask and called it an act of patriotism.

That evening, Monday, he was seen maskless at the Trump International Hotel in defiance of D.C. coronavirus regulations, according to video footage of the event.

“We’re asking everybody that when you are not able to socially distance, wear a mask, get a mask,” Trump said Tuesday at his first appearance at a coronavirus briefing since April. “Whether you like the mask or not, they have an impact.”

Travel Restrictions

TRUMP: “You know, one day, we had a virus come in, and I closed the borders, did a lot of things that were very good. … And nobody wanted to do it. I wanted to do it. We closed the border to China. We put on the ban. We didn’t want people coming in from heavily infected China.” — briefing Tuesday

THE FACTS: False again. He did not ban travel from China. He restricted it. Dozens of countries took similar steps to control travel from hot spots before or around the same time the United States did.

The U.S. restrictions that took effect Feb. 2 continued to allow travel to the United States from China’s Hong Kong and Macao territories for past five months. The Associated Press reported that more than 8,000 Chinese and foreign nationals based in those territories entered the United States in the first three months after the travel restrictions were imposed.

Additionally, more than 27,000 Americans returned from mainland China in the first month after the restrictions took effect. U.S. officials lost track of more than 1,600 who were supposed to be monitored for virus exposure.

Veterans

TRUMP: “On the VA, we got Veterans Choice. Nobody thought that would be possible. That’s been many decades. They’ve been trying to get Veterans Choice. It’s called ‘Choice,’ where they can go get a doctor if they have to wait on line for two weeks or five weeks or two days.” — briefing Tuesday

THE FACTS: It’s not true that he achieved Veterans Choice when other presidents couldn’t. President Barack Obama achieved it. Trump expanded it. It has not eliminated delays for care, including for those with waits of “two weeks” or “two days.”

The program allows veterans to see a private doctor for primary or mental health care at public expense if their VA wait is 20 days (28 for specialty care) or their drive to a VA facility is 30 minutes or more. After the coronavirus outbreak, the VA took the step of restricting veterans’ access to private doctors, citing the added risks of infection and limited capacity at private hospitals.

Reality check

TRUMP on the pandemic: “It will probably unfortunately get worse before it gets better.” — briefing Tuesday

THE FACTS: A rare departure from his bullish accounts of progress against the virus and, by all indications, true.

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