WASHINGTON — To hear President Donald Trump tell it, there is a website where you can find out if you need to get tested for coronavirus, and millions of testing kits available for anyone who needs one. There is an approved treatment, a vaccine coming soon, plenty of protective masks in circulation, and a ship that will be off the coast of New York next week to help patients.
But the president's description of the state of measures being taken by his administration stands in sharp relief to the reality being described by the experts on the ground involved in the response. And so the president, who was criticized early in the crisis for downplaying the risk posed by the virus while health officials were sounding the alarm, now faces claims that he is overplaying the available assistance.
While Trump has given overly optimistic timelines and overstated his accomplishments throughout his time in office, in the case of the coronavirus pandemic, his alternate version of events threatens to create unnecessary confusion among the public, potentially leading to a false sense of security, drawing criticism from public health experts and political opponents.
"Memo to Donald Trump: take a day off from the briefing room where you hype cures that aren't proven, promise websites that don't exist, and talk about tests that aren't being given -- and let @CDCgov talk," Ron Klain, a longtime adviser to Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden who led the Obama administration's response to the Ebola outbreak, said Thursday in a tweet.
The president has gone further than government experts on multiple fronts, including available treatment.
On Thursday — during a news conference which Trump had described a day earlier as being held to announce "very important news from the FDA concerning the Chinese Virus!" — he said a decades-old malaria drug had been approved to treat COVID-19 and could be a "game changer." Moments later, the FDA said the drug was still going through the approval process to determine if it was safe and effective for coronavirus patients.
When Trump was pressed by NBC's Peter Alexander on Friday about whether this claim was giving Americans false hope, he testily defended his positive spin. "I feel good about it, that's all, just a feeling, smart guy," Trump said. "I feel good about it, and you are going to see soon enough."
Trump's recent assurances about the scope of medical supplies on the way for health care workers also hasn’t matched what has been available on the ground.
As hospitals have scrambled to get the protective supplies they need, Trump has repeatedly expressed confidence the U.S. will have the supplies needed. Over the past week, Trump has said the U.S. had “massive numbers of ventilators” and plenty of protective masks for health care workers while assuring that more supplies were on the way.
“The masks are being made by the millions,” Trump said on March 14. “Millions and millions. We have plenty now, but we're ordering for the millions. We're ordering worst-case scenario.”
But a few days later, Trump had to call on the military to rush out protective supplies, as hospitals said they had to start reusing masks, making their own and asking the public for donations.
When Trump was asked at a press briefing Thursday about the gap between his own claims and what health care providers say they are experiencing, he denied over-hyping. “I’m hearing very good things on the ground," he said.
To make sure the U.S. has the supplies it needs, Trump said Wednesday he was turning to the Defense Production Act, to get the private sector to ramp up production, similar to the effort in WWII when factories adapted their capabilities to make military equipment. But Trump declined to specify on Friday what steps, if any, he had taken under the act to require companies to ramp up production of needed supplies.
For patients confused about whether they need testing and how to get it, Trump announced last week that Google was developing a coronavirus testing website that was going to be “very quickly done, unlike websites of the past.” Vice President Mike Pence said Americans would be able to use the website “very soon” to find out if they needed testing and where to go to get it.
But the website being developed by Google sister company Verily has ended up being much more limited in scope than what the White House promised. Verily did launch a website this week similar to the one Trump described, but said in a statement to NBC News that the site is in the “early stages of development” and only being tested in two California counties.
While Pence clarified the day after the White House announced the site that it would just be for the San Francisco Bay Area, “with the goal of expanding to other locations,” Trump denied there was any miscommunication, saying the head of Google called to apologize, without elaborating on what that apology was allegedly for, and accused the media of putting out false information, without specifying what the inaccuracies might be.
To address growing concerns by hospitals that they would soon run out of beds for patients, Trump said at a Wednesday press conference that the Navy was sending a medical ship to New York and another to the West Coast to help treat patients. Trump said the ships “are in tip-top shape. They soon will be.” On timing, he said “they can be launched over the next week or so, depending on need.”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper gave a less optimistic timeline later that day. During an interview on CNN, he said the ship to be sent to New York, which is currently undergoing maintenance, wouldn’t be ready for “a couple weeks plus” and the one on the West Coast “should be ready in a week and half, two weeks, definitely before the end of the month.” He said the ships still needed to be staffed with medical personnel, and only then moved to their locations.
Esper also clarified that the ships, built to deal with wartime trauma, wouldn’t be used to treat those infected with the coronavirus, but rather to take care of other patients to free up hospital operating rooms.
And as concern has mounted in the general public over exposure and diagnosis, Trump has repeatedly overplayed the availability of testing. He said on March 6 that anyone who needed a test was able to get one, reiterating that claim when asked about it at a press conference last week. On March 9, Vice President Mike Pence said that 1 million tests had been distributed, and 4 million more were expected to be sent by the end of the week, predicting on March 13 that 15,000 to 20,000 tests would be performed a day.
The testing availability has been changing rapidly and more labs are coming online daily, but roughly eight weeks after the first confirmed cases, roughly 112,000 tests have been conducted, according to researchers at the COVID Tracking Project. Doctors have continued to say they struggle to obtain testing and results for patients they believe should be tested.
On Friday, Trump said again that the administration was not getting proper praise for the actions he had taken. "We haven’t been given the credit we deserve," the president told reporters. "That I can tell you."