FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn on Sunday declined to provide supporting evidence for President Donald Trump’s assertion that 99 percent of coronavirus cases are “totally harmless,” as mayors across the country battling spikes in infections balked at the unsubstantiated claim.
“Now we have tested almost 40 million people … by so doing, we show cases 99 percent of which are totally harmless,” Trump said Saturday in a speech at the White House marking Independence Day celebrations.
The president may have been referring to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistic this week that the Covid-19 hospitalization rate is 102.5 per 100,000. But the long-term health ramifications of the coronavirus remain unknown, and mortality rates continue to vary greatly for reasons that are not immediately clear. There are now more than 2.8 million diagnosed cases in the United States and more than 129,000 deaths.
On ABC’s “This Week,” co-anchor Martha Raddatz asked Hahn whether Trump’s statement was accurate.
“Well, let’s talk about where we are right now. We’re seeing cases around the Sun Belt,” he said. “We are certainly concerned, at the White House corona task force, about this … We’ve sent teams into those states to actually help with taking care of the patients who are now with Covid-19.”
“I want to ask you again, Dr. Hahn,” Raddatz pressed. “How many cases would you say are harmless?”
“You know, any case, we don’t want to have in this country. 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,” Hahn replied.
The commissioner similarly demurred when questioned on CNN’s “State of the Union” by host Dana Bash. “I’m not going to get into who is right and who is wrong,” he said, adding: “We have seen the surge in cases. We must do something to stem the tide.”
Hahn also urged Americans to follow CDC guidance and comply with protocols from municipal and state governments — though, as several local leaders have noted, those can often be at odds.
As Hahn struggled Sunday to explain the factual basis for the president’s statistic, mayors of Southern communities that have emerged as coronavirus hot spots flatly rejected the 99 percent figure.
“No, that’s not the case,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
“I will tell you, a month ago, 1 in 10 people were testing positive. Today, it’s 1 in 4,” Turner said. “The number of people who are getting sick and going to the hospitals has exponentially increased. The number of people in our ICU beds has exponentially increased.”
“It makes me angry,” Austin, Texas, Mayor Steve Adler told CNN of Trump’s statement. “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.”
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Giménez also insisted on CBS that the coronavirus “is not harmless. No, absolutely not.” If it were, he added, “I wouldn’t be taking the steps that we’re taking here in Miami-Dade.”
The U.S. has conducted more than 4 million tests in the past week — more than ever before — but the jump in testing capacity has been overshadowed by record-breaking daily new infections as states reopen. This is especially true in places like Arizona, California, Florida and Texas.
In his Saturday speech, Trump contradicted several public health experts by predicting the U.S. will “likely have a therapeutic and/or vaccine solution long before the end of the year.” But on Sunday, Hahn acknowledged he couldn’t definitively say when a vaccine would be available.
“Yes, we are seeing unprecedented speed for the development of a vaccine,” he said. But with respect to the FDA’s role, “our solemn promise to the American people is that we will make a decision based upon the data and science on a vaccine, with respect to the safety and effectiveness of that vaccine.”