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FactChecking Trump’s COVID-19 Press Briefing


President Donald Trump, at a July 28 briefing, made a few false and misleading statements about COVID-19:

  • Trump falsely said that “large portions” of the country are “corona-free.” Only 230 counties or county equivalents, accounting for less than 0.5% of the population, have not reported a coronavirus case in the past week.
  • The president claimed, without evidence, that Portland and Seattle were seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases because of protests. The health departments for both areas told us that the available data do not show that protests are responsible for an uptick in cases.
  • Trump said he didn’t know Dr. Anthony Fauci’s position on hydroxychloroquine, the antimalarial drug that the president has claimed, contrary to scientific evidence, is effective against COVID-19. In fact, Fauci has said — at briefings attended by Trump — that there is no evidence that hydroxychloroquine works for COVID-19.
‘Large Portions’ of U.S. Not ‘Corona-Free’

In putting a positive spin on the current coronavirus situation, Trump inaccurately suggested that large parts of the U.S. no longer have any transmission of the coronavirus.

Trump, July 28: We’re seeing improvements across the major metro areas and most hotspots. You can look at large portions of our country; it’s — it’s corona-free. But we are watching very carefully California, Arizona, Texas, and most of Florida. It’s starting to head down in the right direction, and I think you’ll see it rapidly head down very soon. But if you look, California, Arizona, Texas, and, for the most part, most of Florida, it’s starting to head down.

The president is correct that some hotspots are improving. As of July 29, Arizona, California, Texas and Florida all show a downward trend in cases, according to an analysis by Johns Hopkins University.

But the notion that “large portions” of the U.S. are rid of the virus is false. We asked the White House where the coronavirus-free areas were, and did not receive a response.

Using county-level data from USAFacts, a not-for-profit that supplies data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we found that only 230 of the nation’s 3,142 counties or county equivalents have not reported a single coronavirus case for the week ending on July 28, the most recent day with data.

These counties are concentrated in the sparsely populated West, including numerous counties or their equivalents in Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota and Texas. Collectively, the 230 counties or county equivalents account for 0.42% of the total U.S. population.

The most populous county not to report a coronavirus case in the past week is Newport County, Rhode Island, which is home to around 82,000 residents.

A coronavirus task force report from July 26 also underscores how far the U.S. is from being coronavirus-free. Only one state — Vermont — is listed as being in the “green zone” for coronavirus cases, with 10 or fewer per 100,000 people in the last week.

The rest of the nation is either in the “yellow zone” or “red zone,”’ with between 10 and 100 cases per 100,000 people, or more than 100 cases per 100,000 people, respectively. Since the last public report from July 14, the number of “red zone” states for cases has increased, from 18 to 21.

As of July 29, the U.S. is posting a seven-day average of just over 64,000 new coronavirus cases per day, according to the COVID-19 Tracking Project.

No Evidence Protests Have Triggered Rise in COVID-19 Cases

Just after emphasizing the improvements in hotspots, Trump said that protests in certain cities were responsible for an increase in coronavirus cases.

“In the wake of the recent mass gatherings Americans have witnessed in the streets of Portland and Seattle,” he said, “we are also tracking a significant rise in cases in both metropolitan areas because of what’s been going on.”

Both cities have observed a recent rise in cases, but health department officials told us there was no indication that it was due to protests.

“The available data does not support the assertion that protests in Seattle are driving our recent increase in cases,” said Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, the health officer for public health for Seattle and King County, in an email to FactCheck.org. “Although we recognize that COVID-19 transmission at large outdoor gatherings is possible and advise people to avoid such gatherings and take precautions if they participate, our investigations and data from our testing sites have found relatively small numbers of cases associated with these events.”

Duchin said that of the approximately 5,000 people who said they attended a protest event and were tested at a city-sponsored testing site, only 0.2% were positive for COVID-19. Further, Duchin said that case investigations were finding that a majority of the recent cases could be tied to a general increase in activity in the community, “particularly family and social gatherings, household exposures and workplace transmissions.”

Multnomah County Public Health Director Rachael Banks told us much the same was true in Portland.

“We’re seeing an increase in cases, but there’s no evidence that the increase is due to residents who are protesting,” she said in a phone interview, adding that every county resident who tests positive for COVID-19 is interviewed, and that since June 1, the department hasn’t identified any clusters associated with protests.

Since June 1, Banks said only 19 of the county’s more than 2,000 cases have reported attending a mass gathering such as a protest — or less than 1%. Instead, she said, case clusters have been linked to work site exposures, including food production plants, and to households and social networks.

Banks also questioned why her city was being highlighted by the president, as many other counties have worse outbreaks, including Orange County, California, and Maricopa County, home of Phoenix, Arizona.

Trump has previously tried to blame Black Lives Matter protests for spreading the coronavirus. But as we have written, despite initial fears that that might be the case, there isn’t evidence that it has happened.

Hydroxychloroquine

Trump also stated that he didn’t know Dr. Anthony Fauci’s position on hydroxychloroquine, the antimalarial drug Trump has volubly supported, without evidence, as a powerful weapon against COVID-19.

Trump was at a White House coronavirus task force briefing on March 20 when Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said there was no evidence that hydroxychloroquine was effective against COVID-19. And at another briefing on April 6, Trump cut off Fauci, a member of the task force, when he was asked about the drug, saying Fauci had answered the question “15 times.”

At the July 28 press briefing, there was this exchange:

Reporter, July 28: On that note, Mr. President, last night, in tweets that were deleted by Twitter, you said that Dr. Fauci misled the country about hydroxychloroquine. How so?

Trump: No, not at all. I think — I don’t even know what his stance is on it.

Fauci has long been known as a skeptic on the merits of using hydroxychloroquine against COVID-19. He made that clear at the March 20 briefing attended by Trump.

Reporter, March 20: And to Dr. Fauci, if I could. Dr. Fauci — this was explained yesterday — there has been some promise with hydroxychloroquine as potential therapy for people who are infected with coronavirus. Is there any evidence to suggest that, as with malaria, it might be used as a prophylaxis against COVID-19?

Fauci: No. The answer is no. And the evidence that you’re talking about, John, is anecdotal evidence. So as the commissioner of FDA and the president mentioned yesterday, we’re trying to strike a balance between making something with a potential of an effect to the American people available, at the same time that we do it under the auspices of a protocol that would give us information to determine if it’s truly safe and truly effective.

But the information that you’re referring to specifically is anecdotal; it was not done in a controlled clinical trial. So you really can’t make any definitive statement about it.

At that briefing, Fauci also challenged the notion that hydroxychloroquine had proven valuable in treating SARS.

Reporter: It was also fairly effective against SARS.

Trump: It was a very — it was, as I understand that. Is that a correct statement — it was fairly effective on SARS?

Fauci: John, you’ve got to be careful when you say “fairly effective.” It was never done in a clinical trial.

At the April 6 briefing, Trump made clear that he had heard more than enough about Fauci’s views on hydroxychloroquine.

Reporter, April 6: And would you also weigh in on this issue of hydroxychloroquine? What do you think about this? And what is the — what is the medical evidence?

Trump: Do you know how many times you’ve answered that question?

Fauci: Yeah —

Reporter: But I’d love to hear from the doctor.

Trump: Maybe 15. Fifteen times. You don’t have to ask the question.

Reporter: He’s — he’s your medical expert, correct?

Trump: He’s answered that question 15 times.

Fauci reiterated this week that the scientific evidence doesn’t support using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19. In a July 28 interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Fauci said, “The overwhelming, prevailing clinical trials that have looked at the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine have indicated that it is not effective in coronavirus disease.”

Despite the lack of scientific support, Trump has long touted hydroxychloroquine as a promising option in combating COVID-19, calling it a potential “game changer.” He said in May that he himself took the drug as a preventive measure.

We have written previously on a number of occasions about Trump’s enthusiasm for the drug and the lack of evidence of its efficacy. (See “Trump Hypes Potential COVID-19 Drugs, But Evidence So Far Is Slim,” “Trump Gets Ahead of Himself on COVID-19 Therapies,” “Trump Misleads on Hydroxychloriquine, Again.”) Yet Trump’s support for the drug is undiminished.

The president again said at the July 28 briefing, “I happen to believe in it.”

“Many doctors think it is extremely successful — the hydroxychloroquine — coupled with the zinc and perhaps the azithromycin,” Trump said. “But many doctors think it’s extremely good, and some people don’t. Some people — I think it’s become very political.”

As we have written, on July 27 Trump retweeted a widely shared video featuring a doctor falsely claiming hydroxychloroquine is a “cure” for COVID-19. The video has been taken down by Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. This was one of a series of retweets by Trump of tweets supporting the drug.

Numerous studies have cast serious doubt on its effectiveness when it comes to treating COVID-19.

“There are no data from randomized clinical trials that demonstrate effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine for COVID,” Dr. Neil Schluger, chairman of the department of medicine at New York Medical College School of Medicine, told us in a phone interview. Schluger has studied hydroxychloroquine in relation to COVID-19. “There are now several randomized clinical trials that show that it had no effect.”

“The vast majority of expert opinions … is that hydroxychloroquine has no benefit in COVID illness,” he added.

As we have reported, the Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization in March to allow adult and some adolescent patients hospitalized with COVID-19 to obtain hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine from the Strategic National Stockpile “when clinical trials are not available, or participation is not feasible.”

Amid growing evidence the drug is not effective, the FDA announced in June that it had revoked the EUA for the drugs because they are “unlikely to be effective in treating COVID-19,” and that the “known and potential benefits” of the drugs “no longer outweigh” the risks — which can include “serious cardiac adverse events and other potential serious side effects.”

Fauci has long made clear his doubts about the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine, and Trump has heard him.

Correction, Aug. 11: We initially miscalculated the number of counties that did not have any coronavirus cases in the past week.

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