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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump’s Misleading Ad on Coronavirus Testing

A new Trump campaign ad claims that President Donald Trump took “fast action” in regard to testing for the novel coronavirus. While “fast action” is subjective, pandemic experts say the U.S. did not move quickly to set up an adequate system and in fact lagged behind other countries.

We have reported several times on a number of snags and miscues that prevented robust, widespread early testing.

“The United States has lagged nearly every developed country in ramping up testing, and the slow action is one reason why we have the worst epidemic in the world and are discussing reopening when it is not safe to do so, while other countries have used testing as a centerpiece of their strategy to reduce cases to a point where reopening is much more appropriate,” Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told us in an email. “The lack of testing has been not only a public health catastrophe in the US, but also is a direct cause of our economic suffering.”

Paul A. Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center and an attending physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told us in an email: “We need only look at other countries (like South Korea, Germany, Singapore, New Zealand and others) to see what rapid testing and identification can do to slow down spread of this virus. South Korea had done 150,000 tests before we had done 500. The fact that we have more deaths per million in the population than many other developed countries is a testament to our slow response to this virus.”

The new 30-second ad, called “Tough Steps,” first aired May 5 in Indiana. The Trump campaign has spent more than $200,000 on the ad so far, according to Advertising Analytics.

The ad also includes a number of false and unsubstantiated claims that Trump has made before.

It says he “banned Chinese and European travel to the U.S.” While Trump did impose restrictions, as we have reported, they included exceptions, so they weren’t actual “bans.” For example, the New York Times reported that nearly 40,000 people flew directly from China to the U.S. in the two months after the China restrictions went into effect on Feb. 2.

The ad suggests that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden used the term “xenophobia” in connection with the president’s travel restrictions. But it’s not clear that he did.

On the day the China restrictions were announced, as we have written, Biden did say at a campaign event in Iowa, “This is no time for Donald Trump’s record of hysteria and xenophobia – hysterical xenophobia – and fearmongering to lead the way instead of science.” But Biden didn’t refer to the travel restrictions in his speech, and the Biden campaign says the candidate was referring to Trump’s penchant for scapegoating, not the travel rules.

On April 3, the Biden campaign said that he supported the restrictions. 

The ad also suggests that “President Trump saved countless lives” as a result of the travel restrictions. As we have written, in at least two coronavirus task force briefings, the president, without evidence, claimed that the travel restrictions he implemented on China “saved tens of thousands” and even “hundreds of thousands of lives.” We found no support for such figures, and the White House didn’t provide any.

The few studies that have been done estimate travel restrictions the United States and other countries enacted on China had a modest impact, slowing the initial spread outside of China but not containing the coronavirus pandemic.

We have written on a number of occasions about the problems slowing down the nation’s coronavirus testing efforts. The first case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, in the U.S. was confirmed on Jan. 20.

In the early stages of the pandemic, testing was in the hands of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Problems arose after Feb. 5, when the CDC began shipping its kits out to qualified state and local public health labs in an effort to expand testing. The agency said it was releasing 200 kits — each capable of testing around 700 to 800 specimens — giving labs just one kit each. But by Feb. 12, the CDC told reporters that some labs had experienced problems when doing verification tests to make sure the tests worked.

For a while, the agency promised to remake the faulty component and distribute that to the public health labs and, in the meantime, asked any lab that had difficulties to send samples into the CDC for testing. As a result, as of Feb. 25, only 12 state or local labs out of more than 100 nationwide could do their own testing.

More than two weeks after first announcing the testing issue, the CDC said it had come up with a fix.

Another problem early on stemmed from the criteria the CDC used to determine who would be tested. At first, the CDC recommended testing only those with a fever and/or lower respiratory symptoms, and who had traveled to Wuhan, China, where the disease started, or had contact with someone suspected of having the disease.

In late February, after a patient in California was found to be infected despite a lack of known exposure, the CDC changed its guidelines to include anyone with a fever who was hospitalized with a respiratory illness. On March 3, Vice President Mike Pence announced that the CDC would lift all restrictions, as long as a doctor ordered the test. The CDC updated its clinical criteria web page the next day, stating that clinicians “should use their judgment” in deciding who should be tested.

Another problem stemmed from the CDC’s role early on as the sole player in the testing game.

As we have written, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and several former officials said that the CDC simply isn’t set up to be a commercial test lab, let alone the only test lab for the country in such a pandemic. It was a month after the Trump administration on Jan. 31 declared a public health emergency that it took steps to allow testing to be conducted more broadly, and then several days more before the private sector announced testing availability. 

Tom Frieden, who was head of the CDC during the Obama administration, wrote, “A series of errors with lab testing delayed the U.S. response to the Covid-19 pandemic.” Besides the CDC test kit problems, he wrote, “the Food and Drug Administration was slow to allow hospital labs to develop their own tests; and the Department of Health and Human Services didn’t work with commercial labs to start developing broadly available private sector tests until far too late.”

On March 6, six weeks after the first case of COVID-19 was detected in the U.S., Trump famously declared that anyone who “wants a test can get a test.” Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said in a television interview the same day that there “is no testing kit shortage, nor has there ever been.”

But that wasn’t the case. On March 9, we were told by the Association of Public Health Laboratories that although things were improving, “demand for testing is greater than the tests available.”

On March 12, at a congressional hearing, Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz asked who was in charge of “making sure … as many people as possible across this country have access to getting tested as soon as possible.” Fauci responded, “The system — the system does not — is not really geared to what we need right now, what you are asking for. That is a failing. … The idea of anybody getting it easily the way people in other countries are doing it, we are not set up for that. Do I think we should be? Yes, but we are not.”

So seven weeks after the first case of COVID-19 surfaced in the U.S., there remained a “failing” in the nation’s testing system — contrary to the ad’s claim of “fast action.”