WASHINGTON — President Trump continued on Wednesday to misrepresent just how aggressively the United States has implemented a coronavirus testing regime that will allow public health officials to identify, isolate and treat sickened individuals. That process, epidemiologists say, is the only way to halt the pandemic, which has sickened 65,000 Americans and killed more than 900.
The United States has, in recent days, rapidly increased the number of tests conducted daily, and the COVID Tracking Project, which compiles data from across the country, found that 433,545 people in the U.S. had been tested by Wednesday evening.
Trump is now calling that the most comprehensive coronavirus testing program in the entire world.
“We tested far more than anybody else,” the president declared on Wednesday.
Data from other countries appear to complicate, if not completely contradict, that assertion.
It is unclear, owing to a lack of information from China, whether that is in fact the largest number of people tested by a single country, although it appears improbable based on the figures available. Trump’s claim is also misleading, since it does not take into account the difference in population between the U.S. and smaller countries like South Korea.
“Testing is really important,” World Health Organization epidemiologist Dr. Bruce Aylward explained to Yahoo News in a recent conversation. Aylward, who led the WHO response in China during the height of the outbreak there in February, says that relentless testing allowed for an “agile response driven by evidence.” Chinese public health officials were able to find and break transmission chains.
The coronavirus outbreak has largely subsided in China as a consequence. Germany, which has one of the lowest death rates from the coronavirus in the world, instituted an early and aggressive regimen of testing and isolating infected individuals.
The epidemic is now spreading rapidly in the United States, and the lag in testing is at least partly to blame. Public health officials at the federal, state and local levels have worked furiously to make up for weeks lost in part because U.S. public health authorities insisted on creating their own test instead of using the one offered by the WHO.
As the nation’s capacity has grown dramatically, Trump has become a testing cheerleader, declaring a victory of sorts over South Korea, whose aggressive testing has been widely celebrated.
“In eight days, we’re doing more testing than they’ve done in eight weeks. That’s a tremendous turn,” Trump said during Tuesday’s briefing of the coronavirus task force.
Trump repeated a version of that claim in Wednesday’s briefing. “We have now tested — with the best test — far more than anybody else,” he said. “And when I say ‘anybody else,’ I’m talking about other countries. No country is even close.”
South Korea has conducted about 360,000 tests, which is indeed fewer than the U.S. But such a direct comparison overlooks the fact that South Korea’s population is only 58 million, while America’s population, 328 million, is nearly six times larger.
That means that a far smaller share of the U.S. population has been tested. For the U.S. to credibly claim it has tested as comprehensively as South Korea, it needs to test 2.6 million people, a goal that is at best several days away.
Trump praised South Korea as having done a “good job” on coronavirus testing during Wednesday’s briefing, and made an equivocal boast that South Korean President Moon Jae-in had called him to say that the American testing regime was “amazing.”
China has almost certainly tested more people than the United States, though its population is much larger, 1.38 billion. Data for the entire country is not being made available, but by the end of February, Guangdong province, with a population of 113 million, had tested 320,000 people.
The total number of tests done in China is undoubtedly higher, because the outbreak was centered in Hubei province, where Chinese authorities aggressively tested residents, especially in the outbreak’s epicenter in the city of Wuhan. Hubei’s population is 59 million. Wuhan’s is 11 million.
China’s other provinces and regions — which number 29, excluding Macau and Hong Kong — have not made their data readily available. Those figures would likely undercut Trump’s claim of American testing supremacy. Some users on social media have said that China has tested a total of 16 million people, but that figure was impossible to confirm.
According to Our World in Data, a statistics site, the nation that had tested the greatest share of its population as of last week was the United Arab Emirates, with 12,378 tested per million people. The United States was in 10th place, behind Finland and ahead of Vietnam.
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