FDA chief on Trump's inaccurate coronavirus claim: 'Not going to get into who's right and who is wrong'

Trump claimed during a speech Saturday that increased testing has shown that nearly all COVID-19 cases were harmless.
Image: President Donald Trump speaks during a "Salute to America" event on the South Lawn of the White House, Saturday, July 4, 2020.
President Donald Trump speaks during a "Salute to America" event on the South Lawn of the White House on Saturday.Patrick Semansky / AP

Stephen Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, declined Sunday to defend or criticize President Donald Trump's inaccurate claim that 99 percent of COVID-19 cases "are totally harmless."

Speaking on CNN's "State of the Union," Hahn, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, said he was "not going to get into who's right and who is wrong" when pressed repeatedly about Trump's comments Saturday. But he called the virus and recent surge in cases "a serious problem that we have."

"We must do something to stem the tide," he said, "and we have this in our power to do it by following the guidance from the White House task force and the CDC."

"People need to take it seriously," he added.

Hahn was pressed on Trump's remarks during an interview with ABC's "This Week," as well. He said the White House task force is "certainly concerned" about the rapid rise in cases across the Sun Belt. He added that the situation is "a little bit different" from what the country saw in March and April because confirmed cases are increasing among younger Americans and the U.S. has new tools to handle outbreaks.

"Well, what I'd say is, you know, any case we don't want to have in this country," he said. "This is a very rapidly moving epidemic, rapidly moving pandemic, and any death, any case is tragic. And we want to do everything we can to prevent that."

In an Independence Day speech Saturday, Trump said increased testing had shown that nearly all cases were harmless.

"Now we have tested over 40 million people," he said. "But by so doing, we show cases, 99 percent of which are totally harmless. Results that no other country will show, because no other country has testing that we have — not in terms of the numbers or in terms of the quality."

But Trump's claims belie the fact that the death and hospitalization rates for the coronavirus total far more than 1 percent of cases. According to an NBC News tally, there have been more than130,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. out of more than 2.8 million confirmed cases — around 4 percent — compounded with hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations.

Trump's former homeland security adviser Tom Bossert tweeted Sunday that "we are in trouble," adding that masks alone are "not enough" to stem the spread of infection.

With the virus surging across much of the South and the West, multiple mayors said Sunday that their cities face dire consequences of unclear guidance from the Trump administration.

In an interview with "State of the Union," Austin, Texas, Mayor Steve Adler, a Democrat, said Trump's claim "makes me angry."

"You know, I understand he has a tough job, but it is dangerous not to be sending a clear message to Americans, to folks in my town," Adler said. "We have the July 4 weekend, and we need everybody wearing masks. And when they start hearing that kind of ambiguous message coming out of Washington, there are more and more people that won't wear masks, that won't social distance, that won't do what it takes to keep a community safe. And that's wrong, and it's dangerous.

"I just have to hope that people aren't going to listen to that and they will stay focused on what they're hearing here more locally," he added.

On infections in his city, Adler said: "If we don't change the trajectory, then I am within two weeks of having our hospitals overrun. And in our ICUs, I could be 10 days away from that."

On "This Week," Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, a Republican, said, "It's clear that the growth is exponential at this point."

"You know, we've been breaking record after record after record all — the last couple of weeks," he said.

The White House in recent days has begun to shift some of its coronavirus messaging, including guidance on the importance of mask-wearing.

Recently and repeatedly, the president has wrongly claimed that a surge in cases is the result of increased testing, even though other numbers, like positivity rates, tick upward, too.

During a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last month, Trump said he told his administration to "slow down" coronavirus testing. Days later, he said it wasn't a joke. Days after that, he said he was being sarcastic.