Trump's big promises on COVID-19 often fall short

DEB RIECHMANN
President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, Friday, March 20, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (AP) — It's become a fixture of life under quarantine. Almost daily, President Donald Trump appears on television, flanked by officials, to announce his latest maneuver in the fight against the new coronavirus. He typically unveils a dramatic-sounding emergency measure, a solution that appears imminent or a bold promise meant to reassure Americans that he's got this.

Often, the reality falls short of the promise.

The new national testing infrastructure he unveiled in the Rose Garden last week is actually a modest pilot program still in development. The drug he branded a possible “game-changer” still needs testing. It's unclear whether he's using all his power to ramp up production of medical equipment — or whether he's just preparing to do so.

Here's a look at Trump's most high-profile announcements and how they line up with reality.

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THE PROMISE: Trump has said that 1.4 million tests would be available by next week and 5 million by mid-April. “I doubt we'll need anywhere near that,” he said.

THE RESULT: For more than two weeks administration officials have talked about shipping millions of tests to U.S. labs. But it's become clear those numbers have little bearing on the actual number of patients tested since most U.S. labs can process fewer than 100 patient samples per day. Last week, the FDA approved the first coronavirus tests for “high-volume” laboratory systems, which are capable of processing thousands per day. That’s expected to quickly increase U.S. testing capacity.

Efforts to tally U.S. testing numbers have been stymied by the fragmented nature of the country's health system, involving federal, state and local efforts and the private sector.

This week, members of Trump's coronavirus task force gave the most comprehensive figures on testing yet. They estimated that about 60,000 people in the U.S. have been screened for the virus since January, split roughly between government and industry labs. But they acknowledged that those figures don't yet reflect numbers from hospitals.

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THE PROMISE: Under pressure to simplify the testing process, Trump last week declared that Google would jump in to help. “Google is helping to develop a website,” Trump told reporters gathered in the Rose Garden. “It's going to be very quickly done ... to determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location.”

Trump previewed a nationwide network of drive-thru testing sites at chains like Walmart and Target linked by the “Google-facilitated” website.

THE RESULT: It quickly became clear that the seamless online network Trump described will not be available immediately. Verily, a subsidiary of Google, issued a statement clarifying that its website was in the early stages of development and initially would serve just the San Francisco area.

Google followed up with a statement that it would launch a national website to provide “education, prevention, and local resources nationwide" on COVID-19. A Google spokesman said Thursday the company was still working to “roll out a website later this week.”

The White House plan has now changed to focus on community-based testing centers that would be staffed by state and federal emergency personnel.

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THE PROMISE: On Thursday, Trump offered an upbeat promotion of therapeutic drugs in early testing that he said could be “a game-changer” in treating those suffering. Trump said a common malaria drug called chloroquine had shown "very encouraging early results" against coronavirus. “We're going to be able to make that drug available almost immediately,” he said.

THE RESULTS: Minutes later, from the same podium, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn tamped down Trump's enthusiasm. The drug wasn't approved for treatment of the coronavirus. His agency would be taking a closer look to see if it could benefit those patients.

“We want to do that in the setting of a clinical trial -- a large, pragmatic clinical trial -- to actually gather that information and answer the question that needs to be asked and answered," he said.

That process takes months and might or might not yield any results. The FDA later issued a statement further clarifying that there are “no FDA-approved therapeutics or drugs to treat, cure or prevent COVID-19.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, also noted that data needs to be collected and analyzed to prove that it is effective and safe against the coronavirus. “There’s no magic drug out there,” he said.

Trump defended his optimism about the drug on Friday, saying it might or might not work, but said there was no reason not to try it.

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The PROMISE: Trump said the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services will have the authority to waive laws and regulations on such things as telemedicine and licensing requirements for doctors operating across state lines to provide the medical community with greater flexibility to respond to the pandemic.

THE RESULTS: Following the emergency declaration of March 13, HHS and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued directives that, among other steps:

—Expanded the use of telemedicine for Medicare patients.

—Waived license requirements so that doctors from one state can work in others with the greatest needs.

—Waived Medicare requirements of a three-day hospital stay before a patient can be admitted to a nursing home.

—Waived requirements that critical-access hospitals limit the number of beds to 25 and the length of stay to 96 hours.

Health care is one of the most heavily regulated areas of the economy, and that’s done both to protect patients and safeguard federal dollars. But in a national emergency, some of those rules can get in the way, driving the system toward a breaking point. The temporary waivers of federal regulations allow hospitals to allocate scarce resources more efficiently in the face of rapidly changing circumstances. The telemedicine provisions, if seniors take advantage of them, could reduce the risk of exposure to coronavirus for millions of people. The waivers were sought by the health care industry, and AARP was a leading proponent of the telemedicine option.

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THE PROMISE: Trump said last week he would suspend entry into the United States by foreign nationals who had been to Europe during the past 14 days. “Citizens, permanent residents and our families — and even families returning from Europe — will be subject to extra screening" and self-isolation for 14 days.

THE RESULT: The administration’s ban went into effect over the weekend for Europe and then on Monday for Britain and Ireland. But at the 13 airports where American citizens and green card holders returning from overseas were routed, the result initially was hours-long delays and throngs of travelers crammed together in tight spaces, the opposite of social distancing.

It’s not clear yet whether any of those people had the illness or passed it on while they were trapped waiting for screening and clearance. It’s also unclear whether anyone is adhering to the self-quarantine, because there is no way to track it.

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THE PROMISE: Trump said on Wednesday that he invoked the Defense Production Act, a 70-year-old authority to give the government more power to steer private companies to produce equipment, such as masks, ventilators and other supplies, needed to combat the virus.

THE RESULTS: By the end of Friday, it was unclear if he had actually used the act to trigger production of the medical equipment.

On Thursday, he tweeted that he had signed the act “should we need to invoke it in a worst case scenario in the future. ... Hopefully there will be no need.” On Friday, he said he had put the Defense Production Act “in gear" but then added “you know, so far, we haven't had to” use it because companies are volunteering.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said he implored Trump during a phone call earlier Friday to use the Korean War-era act immediately to order the manufacture of ventilators and other critically needed medical equipment. The president told Schumer he would, then could be heard on the telephone seeming to make the order. He yelled to someone in his office to do it now, said Schumer's spokesman, Justin Goodman.

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Associated Press writers Matt Perrone, Colleen Long and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.

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