In tweets and other appearances, President Donald Trump has repeatedly compared his response to the new coronavirus with President Barack Obama’s handling of the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic. But Trump’s information is frequently incorrect or misleading — and the two viruses are very different.
In a March 4 telephone interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, for example, Trump falsely claimed that the Obama administration “didn’t do anything” about the 2009 pandemic.
Trump, March 4: Well, I just say that it’s, you know, a very, very small number in this country. And we’re going to try and keep it that way as much as possible. I will say, though, the H1N1, that was swine flu, commonly referred to as swine flu. And that went from around April of ’09 to April of ’10, where there were 60 million cases of swine flu. And over — actually, it’s over 13,000. I think you might have said 17. I had heard it was 13, but a lot of — a lot of deaths. And they didn’t do anything about it. Interestingly, with the swine flu, children were — in particular, they were vulnerable, sort of the opposite in that respect. But children were very vulnerable to the swine flu. But they never did close the borders. I don’t think they ever did have the travel ban. And we did. And, again, they lost at least 13,000.
In a March 12 meeting with the prime minister of Ireland, Trump repeated the sentiment.
“If you go back and look at the swine flu, and what happened with the swine flu, you’ll see how many people died, and how actually nothing was done for such a long period of time, as people were dying all over the place,” he said. “We’re doing it the opposite. We’re very much ahead of everything.”
Trump is correct on the number of H1N1 cases and deaths, but it’s misleading to compare those figures to the current outbreak of COVID-19, which has just begun. It’s also not true that the Obama administration did nothing or waited a long time to act on the H1N1 influenza pandemic.
In 2009, a new H1N1 influenza virus cropped up out of season, in late spring. Because of genetic similarities to influenza viruses in pigs, it became known as a “swine flu,” even though there is no evidence the virus spread between pigs or pigs to humans.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were about 60.8 million cases of infection with the novel type of influenza virus in the U.S. between April 2009 and April 2010, with a total of approximately 274,304 hospitalizations and 12,469 deaths.
While that death toll may sound high, it’s over an entire year and, in fact, ended up being far lower than was initially expected. The strain of influenza also turned out to have a case fatality rate of just 0.02% — well below even many typical seasonal influenzas.
Everything that’s known about the new coronavirus so far suggests that it’s an entirely different beast than its most recent pandemic predecessor. Peter Jay Hotez, a professor and dean of the tropical medicine school at Baylor College of Medicine, told us that the new virus, which is known as SARS-CoV-2, is considerably more transmissible and more lethal than H1N1.
For those reasons, he said, “the urgency to contain this coronavirus is so much greater than the H1N1 2009 one was.”
In the Hannity interview, Trump touted his travel restrictions and noted that Obama “never did close the borders.” Paul A. Offit, chair of vaccinology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, agreed that Trump’s travel restrictions bought the U.S. time to react, but he said it didn’t make any sense to impose travel restrictions in 2009 since the H1N1 was first reported in North America and the flu is “hard to stop.”
“I don’t think it is a fair comparison,” Offit said. “The flu is constantly mutating – it usually happens in pig and humans in southeast Asia – it is really hard to stop that. Unless you ban all travel anywhere in the world to the United States you would have had trouble. That is true with all flu pandemics. I don’t think a travel ban would have ever made a difference.”
Contrary to Trump’s suggestion that the Obama administration did “nothing,” officials declared a public health emergency early in the H1N1 outbreak, secured funding from Congress and ultimately declared a national emergency, as we’ll explain below.
On top of that, the CDC sequenced the new virus, created testing kits, and the Food and Drug Administration approved multiple vaccines, among other actions.
Rep. Michael Burgess, a Republican from Texas, praised the CDC at a House hearing in 2016 for quickly developing a vaccine for the swine flu in about six months — in time for the start of the school year in September 2009. “So that’s a 6-month time frame if I’m doing my math correctly that you were able to identify the genetic sequence of the virus, reverse engineer a vaccine, test it, assure its safety and efficacy, and get it to school teachers on the second week of school. That’s pretty impressive,” he said.
Trump said in a tweet that the Obama administration’s response to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic “was a full scale disaster.” While he can have that opinion, there is little to support such a negative view.
A New York Times article from January 2010 said that while some mistakes were made, a variety of experts thought the administration had generally handled things well.
William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine told the Times that officials deserved “at least a B-plus,” while Mount Sinai virologist Peter Palese called the overall response “excellent.”
Obama’s Emergency Declarations
In one tweet, Trump quoted Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs as misleadingly claiming that it “took 6 months for President Obama to declare a National Emergency” for the H1N1 “swine flu” outbreak that “killed 12,000 Americans.” It’s true that Obama didn’t declare a national emergency for six months, but that ignores several other steps the administration took, including declaring a public health emergency the same month that the novel H1N1 infections were first reported.
At the time of the tweet, Trump had not yet declared a national emergency for COVID-19.
(Dobbs’ actual quote was slightly different. He said on his March 12 show that it “took six months for President Obama to then declare a national emergency, one that ultimately killed more than 12,000 Americans and infected 60 million more.”)
On April 15, 2009, the first infection was identified in California, according to the CDC, and less than two weeks later, on April 26, 2009, the Obama administration declared a public health emergency. The day before, on April 25, the World Health Organization had declared a public health emergency.
Dr. Richard Besser, then-acting director of the CDC, confirmed to the press on the day of the U.S. declaration that there were 20 cases of H1N1 in the U.S., and that “all of the individuals in this country who have been identified as cases have recovered.”
The same day — April 26 — the CDC began releasing antiviral drugs to treat the H1N1 flu, and two days later, the FDA approved a new CDC test for the disease, according to a CDC timeline on the pandemic.
On April 30, 2009, two days after the public health emergency declaration, Obama formally asked Congress for $1.5 billion to fight the outbreak, and later asked for nearly $9 billion, according a September 2009 Congressional Research Service report. On June 26, 2009, Obama signed Congress’ supplemental appropriation bill that included $7.7 billion for the outbreak.
The U.S. public health emergency was renewed twice — on July 24, 2009, and Oct. 1, 2009.
The WHO declared H1N1 a pandemic on June 11, 2009. Obama declared a national emergency related to the pandemic on Oct. 24, 2009. At the time, the CDC director, Dr. Thomas Frieden, had said millions of people had been infected in the U.S. and more than 1,000 had died. Also about 11.3 million doses of H1N1 vaccine had been distributed, he said.
A month later, on Nov. 12, 2009, the CDC published a report that estimated there had been between 14 million and 34 million H1N1 cases between April 17 and Oct. 17, 2009, and 2,500 to 6,000 H1N1-related deaths.
The H1N1 2009 flu pandemic ultimately did kill 12,000 Americans — the figure Dobbs used — according to the midrange estimate from CDC for April 12, 2009, to April 10, 2010. The number of cases totaled an estimated 60.8 million people. To be clear, that strain of the flu continues to cause infections and deaths, at least 75,000 deaths from 2009 to 2018, the CDC says.
In the case of that pandemic, the outbreak began in Mexico and spread quickly to the United States. The first cases in Mexico were identified in March and early April 2009, with the Mexican government reporting an outbreak to the Pan American Health Organization on April 12, 2009, according to a CDC report.
In the case of COVID-19, the earliest known instances of the disease occurred in early December in Wuhan, China, and officials reported an outbreak to the WHO on Dec. 31. The CDC announced the first American case on Jan. 21. The Trump administration declared a public health emergency on Jan. 31, one day after the WHO did so, and announced a national emergency on March 13. Two days before, the WHO had declared the global outbreak a pandemic.
Trump Misleads on Polls Again
In yet another tweet, Trump again misleadingly cited poll information to claim he has “78%” approval of his administration’s response to the new coronavirus outbreak.
Sleepy Joe Biden was in charge of the H1N1 Swine Flu epidemic which killed thousands of people. The response was one of the worst on record. Our response is one of the best, with fast action of border closings & a 78% Approval Rating, the highest on record. His was lowest!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 13, 2020
He claimed this was “the highest on record,” while Biden’s approval rating for the response to the H1N1 outbreak “was lowest.” Even according to a dated poll, the H1N1 approval wasn’t the lowest.
As we’ve written before when the president cited Gallup, a poll by the company, taken Feb. 3-16 and released Feb. 20, before anyone had died from COVID-19 in this country, found that 77% of Americans were very or somewhat confident that the government would be able to handle an outbreak of new coronavirus. That was a higher percentage than American confidence in previous administrations’ ability to deal with Zika, Ebola, swine flu and bird flu, according to an average of polls. But the confidence in swine flu was the second highest — at 67% — not the “lowest,” as Trump claimed.
And as the number of cases and deaths have grown, public confidence in the Trump administration has decreased, according to several polls. A Quinnipiac poll, taken March 5-8 and released March 9, found 43% of registered voters said they approved of the way Trump is handling the outbreak response.
With the swine flu, however, at least two polls showed higher approval of the Obama administration (the polls didn’t ask about Biden). A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken in October 2009 found 69% of adults were confident in the federal government’s ability to respond to an outbreak. A CNN poll released in early November 2009 found 57% approved of Obama’s response.
Also, Trump may have given Biden a promotion, claiming he “was in charge of the H1N1 Swine Flu epidemic.” When we asked the Biden campaign about that, we were told that the former vice president “helped lead” the response to the pandemic “but was not the top official for it.”