Despite early warnings about how damaging COVID-19 could be for Americans, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow defended his late February statement that the U.S. had “contained” the virus, saying on May 3 that the novel coronavirus “spread exponentially in ways that virtually no one could have predicted.”
In just one example, news organizations reported that President Donald Trump’s top trade adviser, Peter Navarro, wrote a memo in late January advising federal officials that the global outbreak could become a pandemic and that more than half a million Americans could die in multiple scenarios. Navarro then wrote another memo dated Feb. 23, saying the illness could claim the lives of 1 million to 2 million Americans, the news reports, which included images of the memos, said.
Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, made the claim May 3 in an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union.” On the show, Kudlow defended having previously declared in a Feb. 25 CNBC interview that the U.S. had “contained” the coronavirus “pretty close to airtight.”
Tapper, May 3: I guess the reason for the disconnect is that, sometimes, the people who understandably want to get the economy up and running have been saying things that contradict what some of the people who are health experts in the administration are saying.
For instance, at the end of February, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, who apparently got in the doghouse for saying in a conference call — doghouse with President Trump — for saying in a conference call that it was not a matter of if, but when there would be a severe disruption to the American people and our way to live life, and that’s the same day, as you know, that you said this.
Let’s roll that tape.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
Kudlow: We have contained this, I won’t say airtight, but pretty close to airtight. We have done a good job in the United States.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
Tapper: So, I guess the question is, is there a disconnect between what people such as you, who want things to be better than they are, so as to help the economy, are saying and what people in the health field are saying?
Kudlow: Well, look, Jake, for the umpteenth time, I will say, my quote then was based on the actual facts, which, at the time, there were only 40 or 50 cases.
And it was contained, particularly after President Trump boldly put up travel restrictions with China. That’s what the data — I didn’t make a forecast.
So far — and that was just — there was hardly any cases, OK? Now, yes, some doctors were more fearful. Other doctors had many different things to say. I don’t want to get in and play this game who said what and when.
Political leaders, one well-known political leader in the House, went to Chinatown in San Francisco and said, everything is OK, OK?
One important anchor on your network as late as mid-March said, basically, the COVID-19 virus was no worse than an ordinary flu year. I mean, there are people saying — my quote was, at that time, there were very few cases.
Then, as the virus spread exponentially in ways that virtually no one could have predicted, of course, we changed our mind.
At the time of Kudlow’s Feb. 25 interview, there were 57 reported cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. and no known deaths. But, as we all now know, the virus that causes the illness was far from being “contained” in the country. (As of May 4, there were more than 1.15 million cases and over 67,000 deaths in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
But it is inaccurate to say that, as of Feb. 25, “virtually no one could have predicted” such a widespread outbreak in the U.S. There were several people who predicted the virus could or would spread to become a pandemic — including members of Trump’s administration.
Jan. 28 — According to emails obtained by the New York Times, Carter Mecher, a senior medical adviser to the Department of Veterans Affairs, sent a note to several administration colleagues on Jan. 28 advocating closing schools, as well as colleges and universities, to prevent further transmission of the coronavirus.
Mecher, Jan. 28: The chatter on the blogs is that WHO [World Health Organzation] and CDC are behind the curve. I’m seeing comments from people asking why WHO and CDC seem to be downplaying this. I’m certainly no public health expert (just a dufus from the VA), but no matter how I look at this, it looks [to] be bad. If we assume the same case ascertainment rate as the spring wave of 2009 H1N1, this looks nearly as transmissible as flu (but with a longer incubation period and greater Ro). The projected size of the outbreak already seems hard to believe, but when I think of the actions being taken across China that are reminiscent of 1918 Philadelphia [during the influenza pandemic], perhaps those numbers are correct. And if we accept that level of transmissibility, the CFR [case fatality rate] is approaching the range of a severe flu pandemic. But if we assume the case ascertainment rate is better than H1N1 and transmissibility is less than flu (it is still much more transmissible than SARS), and the CFR goes accordingly (1918 pandemic range). And if we assume the case ascertainment rate is even worse than 2009 H1N1, this is really unbelievable (higher transmissibility than flu). Any way you cut it, this is going to be bad. You guys made fun of me screaming to close the schools. Now I’m screaming, close the colleges and universities.
Jan. 29 — Navarro, who heads the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, wrote a memo — addressed to the National Security Council — that looked at what might happen if the outbreak turned into a “true pandemic.” In a worst-case scenario, Navarro said COVID-19 could lead to the loss of almost $6 trillion and the deaths of 543,000 Americans, according to the memo, published by the political website Axios.
Jan. 30 — Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar “directly warned” Trump “of the possibility of a pandemic during a call … the second warning he delivered to the president about the virus in two weeks,” according to the Times.
“Most of the disease is in China, however, we can and should be prepared for this new virus to gain a foothold in the U.S.,” she said. “The goal of the measures we have taken to date are to slow the introduction and impact of this disease in the United States, but at some point, we are likely to see community spread in the U.S. or other countries.”
Feb. 14 — According to the New York Times, HHS and National Security Council officials drafted a memo, dated Feb. 14 and titled “U.S. Government Response to the 2019 Novel Coronavirus,” that mentioned several “quarantine and isolation measures” that may be necessary to slow the spread of the virus in places where there is “sustained human-to-human transmission.”
Those tactics included: “significantly limiting public gatherings and cancellation of almost all sporting events, performances, and public and private meetings that cannot be convened by phone. … [S]chool closures. Widespread ‘stay at home’ directives from public and private organizations with nearly 100% telework for some.”
Also on Feb. 14, the Wall Street Journal quoted Marc Lipsitch, a Harvard University professor of epidemiology, as saying: “I think it is likely we’ll see a global pandemic. If a pandemic happens, 40% to 70% of people world-wide are likely to be infected in the coming year. What proportion of those will be symptomatic, I can’t give a good number.”
Feb. 21 — During a mock pandemic exercise, members of the White House coronavirus task force “concluded they would soon need to move toward aggressive social distancing, even at the risk of severe disruption to the nation’s economy and the daily lives of millions of Americans,” the New York Times would later report.
That same day, Messonnier said at a CDC briefing that “it would be impossible” to “catch every traveler with coronavirus from China,” so “our goal continues to be slowing the introduction of the virus into the U.S. This buys us more time to prepare our communities for more cases and possibly sustained spread.”
She warned, too, about possible school and business closings. “[I]f you’re watching the news, you may be hearing about schools shutting down and businesses closing in countries in Asia to reduce the potential spread of this virus,” Messonnier said. “The day may come where we need to implement such measures in the U.S. communities.”
Feb. 23 — Navarro, according to Axios, wrote a second memo dated Feb. 23 and addressed to Trump, saying: “There is an increasing probability of a full-blown COVID-19 pandemic that could infect as many as 100 million Americans with a loss of life of as many as 1-2 million souls.”
Feb. 24 — WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told countries to prepare for the global health emergency to become a pandemic. He said: “Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely, it has. Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet. … We must focus on containment, while doing everything we can to prepare for a potential pandemic.” (On March 11, the WHO declared the outbreak a global pandemic.)
Feb. 25 — On the same day as Kudlow’s CNBC interview, Messonnier did say “containment strategies” in the U.S. “have been largely successful.” But, she again cautioned that: “Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country. It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”
All of those warnings were made prior to, or the day of, Kudlow claiming the coronavirus had been “contained.”
Furthermore, as we have written before, experts have long warned of a potentially catastrophic outbreak of global disease for which the U.S. might not be prepared.
FactCheck.org does not accept advertising. We rely on grants and individual donations from people like you. Please consider a donation. Credit card donations may be made through our “Donate” page. If you prefer to give by check, send to: FactCheck.org, Annenberg Public Policy Center, 202 S. 36th St., Philadelphia, PA 19104.