Fact-checking President Donald Trump's claims about coronavirus

Amid the pandemic, Trump has made a number of false or misleading statements.

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By Jane C. Timm

President Donald Trump, in daily news conferences at the White House and in interviews, has made a number of false or misleading claims about the coronavirus and U.S. efforts to combat it, including some that put him at odds with health experts and that prompted clarifications from his own top health and science officials.

NBC News is fact-checking some of his statements, made or repeated at various points during the ongoing global crisis, and updating this article.

Claim: Trump acted at the same time a top aide wrote memos warning of the virus. Half true.

Asked about pandemic memos circulated by top trade adviser Peter Navarro warning of the effects the coronavirus could have, Trump argued that he acted at the same time, shuttering the U.S. to China and eventually Europe.

“That was about the same time that I closed it down,” he said on April 8, referring to travel restrictions he put in place to slow the spread of coronavirus. "We closed it down to all of China, we closed it down to all of Europe, those were big moves."

Trump's claims here are half true. Navarro’s warnings were reportedly circulated in late January and Trump’s travel ban on China was ordered January 31st — so he's right on the timing. But Trump's other statement, that he shut down "all" travel from China and Europe, is false.

He closed the border to most foreigners travel from China to the U.S. — exempting U.S. citizens and some others — but he did not shut down the borders completely. On March 11, Trump ordered the border closed to foreigners coming to the U.S. from 26 European states, but not all of Europe.

Claim: The Obama administration ignored swine flu. That's false.

“Take a look at the swine flu. It was a disaster, 17,000 people died, the other administration…it’s like they didn’t even know it was here,” Trump claimed during an April 6 news conference.

Swine flu killed an estimated 12,469 people in the U.S. during the Obama administration. The first case was detected on April 15, 2009. Within two weeks, according to archived CDC records, the federal government had declared a public health emergency, begun work on a vaccine, started releasing PPE from the federal stockpile and purchasing antivirals, and had rolled out a test.

Claim: Closing the border to Chinese nationals "early" saved lives. Trump gets credit for travel ban, but effectiveness is hard to measure.

“Something we did very well is, when we stopped the inflow from China at a very early level, that was a good thing to do, a great thing to do. We would have had thousands and thousands of more deaths. And we also stopped the inflow from Europe at a very early level,” Trump said on March 29. “We had never done anything like it, where we closed our borders to a country like that.”

The U.S. barred entry by foreigners who had travelled in China in the past two weeks, with some exceptions, starting on February 2. But it's hard to know the impact of one decision — amid a rolling, nationwide response — on mortality.

One expert, Dr. Irwin Redlener, the director of the Columbia University National Center for Disaster Preparedness and a public health analyst for NBC News and MSNBC, called the travel bans a “mixed bag" in terms of effectiveness.

Stopping travel from China was coupled with inconsistent messaging from the White House on the potential severity of the threat. On Jan. 30, Trump said the U.S. has "very little problem," and through February, Trump was comparing the coronavirus to a flu.

“There was value in closing the border to Chinese nationals coming to the U.S. in the early weeks of this situation. Closing the borders to Europeans later? It was too late to make much difference. It’s a mixed bag,” he told NBC News.

Claim: Trump says he inherited a "broken test" for the virus. This is false.

"We inherited a broken test," Trump said on March 30 on Fox News.

Later in the day, he complained that his administration wasn't getting enough credit for overcoming what he claimed was a "broken testing system" in order to get a coronavirus test up and running.

“You should be saying congratulations to the men and women who have done this job, who have inherited a broken testing system, and who have made it great,” he said during the March 30 Rose Garden news conference.

Trump's claims come amid broad criticism that the U.S. was slow to begin testing its residents for coronavirus, hurting early efforts to contain the outbreak. But it’s impossible for Trump to have inherited a broken testing system for COVID-19. The novel coronavirus did not exist until late last year, when researchers believe it was transmitted from an animal to a human for the first time.

And there's little evidence that the actions past administrations hamstrung the Trump administration here, particularly since no administration had faced a pandemic of this nature.

Redlener said the president’s claim was “nonsense.”

“There’s nothing that he inherited that could have hamstrung them,” said Redlener, adding that virus test development is pretty commonplace.

“Even if there was, the World Health Organization and Germany and other places offered us testing equipment and materials, which we decided not to take," he said.

There is, however, evidence that the Trump administration made early missteps: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention struggled to develop its own test and then, as a limited supply came online, ran the lab work through just a handful of state and federal labs.

That prolonged wait times for a diagnosis while the virus spread further, lab directors and public health experts told NBC News last month, and the federal government did not issue new rules speeding the approval process for commercial, research and academic labs until Feb. 29. Testing capacity has since expanded significantly.

Claim: The U.S. implemented a travel ban "way ahead of anybody else." This is false.

On April 1, Trump told reporters that the United States had banned "dangerous foreign travel that threatens the health of our people and we did so early, far earlier than anyone would have thought, and way ahead of anybody else."

The U.S. implemented a restriction on foreign travelers who had been in China in the past two weeks, at 5 p.m. Feb. 2. Italy had already done so by Jan. 31 and North Korea had banned all foreign tourists Jan. 22.

Claim: The U.S. is testing more than other countries. This needs context.

During a news conference March 30, Trump said, "We have done more tests, by far, than any country in the world, by far," in response to a question about the United States lagging behind in testing residents "per capita."

It is technically true that the U.S. has run more tests for the disease caused by the virus than any other country, but this claim, one the president makes frequently, requires more context. The U.S. is not testing the same share of its population as other countries, a key measure.

On March 31, the White House said there had been more than 1.1 million tests; that's 1 in 297 people who are getting tested. South Korea, for instance, has done 410,564 tests as of the same day. But South Korea has a population of 51 million people, which means they’re testing a much larger share of the population — 1 in every 124 people.

Trump argued Monday that the U.S. is a large country and there are areas that wouldn't need ramped-up testing. But even in the hardest-hit areas — like New York City — many cannot get tested.

Claim: There's an "approved" treatment for COVID-19. That's not accurate.

The president has promoted an anti-malaria drug as an “approved” treatment for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

"The hydroxychloroquine and the Z-pack, I think, as a combination, probably, it's looking very, very good," Trump said during a news briefing March 23. He called the pair of medicines a "drug that got approved in record-setting time."

There's some early evidence that chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine — decades-old drugs used to prevent malaria and treat rheumatic diseases — might help patients fight off the virus, particularly when paired with the antibiotic azithromycin, commonly known as a Z-Pack.

But it's not an "approved" treatment for the coronavirus, according to the Food and Drug Administration, or even a fully vetted option, according to one of Trump's top scientists.

"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," the nation's leading infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said during the same news conference.

Dr. Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the FDA, also said in March that the agency wants "a large, pragmatic clinical trial" to see whether the drug "actually benefits patients."

A nationwide trial to determine whether hydroxychloroquine can prevent the disease in exposed persons is underway, NPR reported March 31.

Claim: Some hospital workers may be taking hydroxychloroquine already. True, but medical associations have urged caution.

Trump said of hydroxychloroquine on March 31: "I think some medical workers are doing that, using it maybe or getting it prescribed perhaps as — for another use."

"There is a theory going around that in our country and some other countries, people are taking that — that work in the hospitals, that work with the patients — because there is some evidence. And, again, it's going to have to be proven. It's very early," he added.

Here, Trump is continuing to promote an unapproved treatment by amplifying anecdotal reports of a practice medical authorities have acknowledged is indeed happening. But those same authorities have issued warnings against the practice, in large part because the treatment is not approved by the FDA.

The American Medical Association, the American Pharmacists Association and the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists released a joint statement acknowledging "that some physicians and others are prophylactically prescribing medications currently identified as potential treatments for COVID-19."

"We strongly oppose these actions," the statement said. "We caution hospitals, health systems, and individual practitioners that no medication has been FDA-approved for use in COVID-19 patients."

These early anecdotal success stories, and the president's public promotion of the drugs as an effective weapon against the disease, have led to hoarding and shortages of the drug, leaving people with lupus and other rheumatoid diseases wondering if they'll be able to refill their prescriptions.

Claim: New York hospital staff are stealing lots of PPE. There's no evidence of this.

During multiple news conferences, Trump has questioned the rate at which a hospital in New York is using personal protective equipment (PPE), suggesting that theft is why the unnamed facility needs 300,000 masks a week.

At one point, he claimed a distributor told him that a New York hospital's mask purchases were far too high to reflect actual need.

"There's only a couple of things that could happen — is it going out the back door? And I've reported it to the city and let the city take a look at it. But when you go from 10,000 masks to 300,000 masks ... there's something going on," Trump said during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on March 30.

While there were anecdotal reports of mask theft, there’s no indication this has driven up supply needs dramatically — and officials from New York state and the city, as well as hospitals, strongly disputed Trump. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo skewered the suggestion of rampant theft, explaining that the state has been preparing for the apex of the pandemic that is coming soon. The state is the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S., with 83,712 confirmed cases as of April 1.