Trump's coronavirus math problem

David Knowles
·Senior Editor
·4 min read

President Trump responded late Tuesday to the news that the United States had topped more 1 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus, roughly one-third of the reported global total to date.

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Trump’s assertion came on the same day that U.S. deaths from the virus exceeded the 58,220 Americans killed during the Vietnam War. The toll from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, continues to climb. As of Wednesday morning, at least 58,965 Americans had died of the infection.

While the U.S. has indeed tested more people than any other country — 5.7 million tests have been administered in the nation since the start of the pandemic — there is ample reason to doubt the president’s claim that the only reason America has more confirmed cases is that it has conducted more tests.

When Trump says testing in the U.S. is “sooo much better than any other country in the World,” it’s clear that he means the total number of tests performed. Measured per capita, however, the U.S. ranks ninth in the world for tests given per 1 million residents, according to data from Statista.

The third largest country by population, the U.S. trails Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Germany, Russia, Canada and Belgium in tests per capita.

And while the U.S. has significantly ramped up testing since late March, when the number of cases climbed into the thousands, it is still nowhere close to the 5 million daily tests that health experts say are needed to safely reopen the country.

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting about the coronavirus in the Oval Office of the White House, Wednesday, April 29, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Trump at a coronavirus meeting on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The single-day high for tests given in the U.S. was 314,182 on April 22, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project, yet Trump expressed confidence when asked Tuesday whether the U.S. would be able to quickly fix the glaring shortfall.

“Well, we’re going to be there very soon. If you look at the numbers, it could be that we’re getting very close,” Trump said. “I mean, I don’t have the exact numbers. We would have had them if you asked me the same question a little while ago, because people with the statistics were there. We’re going to be there very soon.”

The president and the members of the White House coronavirus task force have made clear that testing will play a central role in helping jump-start the nation’s economy, but Trump’s boast of more tests performed to date also leaves out another important point. Thanks in part to an error with an early test developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a federal bottleneck in supplies needed to collect and transport the samples, the U.S. fell behind in the number of tests being administered in February and March, when the virus was quickly spreading undetected.

As of March 17, the U.S. trailed South Korea, Italy, Australia, Austria, the U.K., the Czech Republic and Greece in terms of tests per 1 million people, the New York Times reported. That failure of testing hampered the ability of health officials to trace the contacts of those who were infected and place them in quarantine before they infected others.

Still, Trump is right that one shouldn’t judge the more than 1 million coronavirus cases in the U.S., nor the nearly 59,000 deaths from COVID-19, without putting those numbers in context.

When it comes to coronavirus deaths by country per 1 million residents, the U.S. trails Belgium, Spain, Italy, France, the U.K., the Netherlands, Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland, according to Statista.

Death statistics from other countries may not be accurate, and in some instances, notably China, experts say there is good reason for doubt. But data from the CDC that compares actual deaths from any cause with the expected number based on previous years indicates that coronavirus directly or indirectly has killed many more Americans than the reported figures, which for most states exclude people who died outside a hospital and were never tested for the infection.

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Click here for the latest coronavirus news and updates. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please refer to the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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