Tagged Global Health Watch

Trump Says He Saved 2 Million Lives From COVID. Really?

President Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed to have saved 2 million lives from COVID-19 through his actions to combat the disease.

Recently, he made the assertion during the NBC News town hall on Oct. 15 that replaced the second presidential debate.

“But we were expected to lose, if you look at the original charts from original doctors who are respected by everybody, 2,200,000 people,” Trump said. “We saved 2 million people,” he added.

He mentioned the same ballpark figure during a Sept. 15 ABC News town hall and posted a tweet about it on Oct. 13.

Others in the Trump administration have also pointed to the 2.2 million figure. Vice President Mike Pence referenced it during the vice presidential debate on Oct. 7. So did Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar during a Sept. 20 “Meet the Press” television interview.

Where did this number come from? And is there any truth to the idea that Trump is responsible for saving 2 million lives from COVID-19? Since Trump continues to use it to claim success, we decided to look into it.

What We Know About the ‘2 Million’

The White House and the Trump presidential campaign did not respond to our request for evidence supporting the idea that roughly 2 million lives were spared.

It appears to have first been mentioned by the president during a March 29 White House coronavirus task force press briefing, when Trump and Dr. Deborah Birx, task force coordinator, explained they were asking Americans to stay home from mid-March through the end of April, because mathematical models showed 1.6 million to 2.2 million people could die from COVID-19.

The warning stemmed from a paper authored by Neil Ferguson, an epidemiology professor at Imperial College London. He modeled how COVID-19 can spread through a population in different scenarios, including what would happen if no interventions were put in place and people continued to live their daily lives as normal.

In the paper, Ferguson wrote, “In total, in an unmitigated epidemic, we would predict approximately 510,000 deaths in [Great Britain] and 2.2 million in the US.”

Ferguson did not respond to our request to talk through the study with him. But in a July email interview with HuffPost, he said Trump’s boasting of saving 2.2 million lives isn’t true, because the pandemic isn’t over.

Andrea Bertozzi, a mathematics professor at UCLA, said it was important to remember the 2.2 million figure was derived from a modeling scenario that would almost certainly never happen — which is that neither the government nor individuals would change their behavior at all in light of COVID-19.

The study didn’t mean to say 2.2 million people were absolutely going to die, but rather to say, “Hold on, if we let this thing run its course, bad things could happen,” said Bertozzi. Indeed, the results from the study did cause government leaders in both the U.S. and the United Kingdom to implement social distancing measures.

Experts also pointed out that the U.S. has the highest COVID-19 death toll of any country in the world — more than 220,000 people — and among the highest death rates, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

“I don’t think we can say we’ve prevented 2 million deaths, because people are still dying,” said Justin Lessler, an associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

In some instances when using the 2 million estimate, Trump and others in his administration cited the China travel restrictions for saving lives, while other times they’ve credited locking down the economy. We’ll explore whether either statement holds water.

Did Travel Restrictions Do Anything?

Trump implemented travel restrictions for some people traveling from China beginning Feb. 2 and for Europe on March 11. But experts say and reports show the restrictions don’t appear to have had much effect because they were put in place too late and had too many holes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the first cases of coronavirus in the U.S. arrived in mid-January. So, since the travel bans were put in place after COVID-19 was already spreading in the U.S., they weren’t effective, said Josh Michaud, associate director for global health policy at the KFF. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

A May study supports that assessment. The researchers found the risk of transmission from domestic air travel exceeded that of international travel in mid-March.

Many individuals also still traveled into the U.S. after the bans, according to separate investigations by The New York Times and the Associated Press.

Based on all this, experts said there isn’t evidence to support the idea that the travel restrictions were the principal intervention to reduce the transmission of COVID-19.

What About Lockdowns?

On the other hand, the public health experts we talked to said multiple global and U.S.-focused studies show that lockdowns and implementing social distancing measures helped to contain the spread of the coronavirus and thus can be said to have prevented deaths.

However, Trump can’t take full credit for these so-called lockdown measures, which ranged from closing down all but essential businesses to implementing citywide curfews and statewide stay-at-home orders. On March 16, after being presented with the possibility of the national death tally rising to 2.2. million, the White House issued federal recommendations to limit activities that could transmit the COVID-19 virus. But these were just guidelines and were recommended to be in effect only through April 30.

Most credit for putting in place robust social distancing measures belongs to state and local government and public health officials, many of whom enacted stronger policies than those recommended by the White House, our experts said.

“I don’t think you can directly credit the federal government or the Trump administration with the shutdown orders,” said Lessler. “The way our system works is that the power for public health policy lies with the state. And each state was making its own individual decision.”

Some studies also explore the potential human costs of missed opportunities. If lockdowns had been implemented one or two weeks earlier than mid-March, for instance, which is when most of the U.S. started shutting down, researchers estimated that tens of thousands of American lives could have been saved. A model also shows that if almost everyone wore a mask in the U.S., tens of thousands of deaths from COVID-19 could have been prevented.

Despite these scientific findings, Trump started encouraging states — even those with high transmission rates — to open back up in May, after the White House’s recommendations to slow the spread of COVID-19 expired. He has also questioned the efficacy of masks, said he wouldn’t issue a national mask mandate and instead left mask mandate decisions up to states and local jurisdictions.

Our Ruling

President Trump is claiming that without his efforts, there would have been 2 million deaths in the U.S. from COVID-19.

But that 2 million number is taken from a model that shows what would happen without any mitigation measures — that is, if citizens had continued their daily lives as usual, and governments did nothing. Experts said that wouldn’t have happened in real life.

And while lockdowns and social distancing have indeed been proven to prevent COVID-19 illness and deaths, credit for that doesn’t go solely to Trump. The White House issued federal recommendations asking Americans to stay home, but much stronger social distancing measures were enforced by states.

Travel restrictions implemented by Trump perhaps helped hold down transmission in the context of broader efforts, but on their own, they don’t seem to have significantly reduced the transmission rate of the coronavirus.

We rate this claim Mostly False.

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No, the WHO Didn’t Change Its Lockdown Stance or ‘Admit’ Trump Was Right

On Monday, President Donald Trump claimed that the World Health Organization (WHO) “admitted” he was correct that using lockdowns to control the spread of COVID-19 was more damaging than the illness.

In a post on Twitter, Trump wrote: “The World Health Organization just admitted that I was right. Lockdowns are killing countries all over the world. The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself. Open up your states, Democrat governors. Open up New York. A long battle, but they finally did the right thing!”

He reiterated his statement later that night during a campaign rally, saying, “But the World Health Organization, did you see what happened? They just came out a little while ago, and they admitted that Donald Trump was right. The lockdowns are doing tremendous damage to these Democrat-run states, where they’re locked out, sealed up. Suicide rates, drug rates, alcoholism, deaths by so many different forms. You can’t do that.”

Together, the tweet and these comments got considerable attention on social media.

But did the WHO change its stance on lockdowns or concede anything to Trump, as he said it did? Briefly, no.

Since May, Trump has been vocal about asking states to reopen businesses, schools, religious services and other social activities. He also took credit for locking down the U.S. in the early stages of the pandemic, however. And his administration largely delegated lockdown decisions to governors and local governments.

Yet those lockdowns — marked by stay-at-home orders and other restrictions — have been less stringent than those implemented in other countries, said Brooke Nichols, an assistant professor of global health at Boston University.

The “definition has differed country by country and state by state. I would argue that the U.S. has never had an actual enforced lockdown like there have been in some Asian countries and in Italy last spring,” Nichols wrote in an email.

We reached out to the Trump campaign and the White House to ask for more information about Trump’s assertion but didn’t receive a response.

A Clip Doesn’t Tell the Full Story

Although the Trump team didn’t get back to us, we noticed that the Trump War Room Twitter account responded to Trump’s tweet with a link to a video, appearing to back up the president’s claim.

The video is a clip from an Oct. 8 interview with Dr. David Nabarro, a special envoy on COVID-19 for the WHO, by Scottish journalist Andrew Neil. The segment was televised by the British news outlet Spectator TV.

In response to a question about the economic consequences of lockdowns, Nabarro said: “We in the World Health Organization do not advocate lockdowns as the primary means of control of this virus. The only time we believe a lockdown is justified is to buy you time to reorganize, regroup, rebalance your resources; protect your health workers who are exhausted. But by and large, we’d rather not do it.” Nabarro then went on to describe potential economic consequences, including effects on the tourism industry and farmers or the worsening of world poverty.

We checked with Nabarro to find out if the clip accurately reflected the points he raised during a nearly 20-minute interview. He responded, by email: “My comments were taken totally out of context. The WHO position is consistent.”

That context Nabarro mentioned covered a range of topics, such as the estimate that about 90% of the world’s population is still vulnerable to COVID-19, that lockdowns are only an effective pandemic response in extreme circumstances and what Nabarro means when he talks about finding the “middle path.”

“We’re saying we really do have to learn how to coexist with this virus in a way that doesn’t require constant closing down of economies, but at the same time in a way that is not associated with high levels of suffering and death,” Nabarro said in the interview.

To achieve that via the middle-path approach, robust defenses against the virus must be put in place, said Nabarro, including having well-organized public health services, such as testing, contact tracing and isolation. It also involves communities adhering to public health guidelines such as wearing masks, physical distancing and practicing good hygiene.

So, it’s really not accurate for the president to imply that the WHO has or has not supported lockdowns, said Lawrence Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University. It’s not as simple as an either-or choice.

“No one is saying that lockdowns should never be used, just that they shouldn’t be used as a primary or only method,” Gostin wrote in an email.

And Josh Michaud, associate director of global health policy at KFF, said both the WHO and public health experts have acknowledged there are economic consequences to lockdowns. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

“Strict lockdowns are best used sparingly and in a time-limited fashion because they can cause negative health and economic consequences,” said Michaud. “That is why Nabarro said lockdowns are not recommended as the ‘primary’ control measure. Critics like to frame lockdowns as being recommended as the only measure, when in reality that is not the case.”

Has the WHO Flipped on Its Stance on Lockdowns?

And what about Trump’s assertion that the WHO had changed its position and admitted he was right?

A member of the WHO media office told us in a statement, “Our position on lockdowns and other severe movement restrictions has been consistent since the beginning. We recognize that they are costly to societies, economies and individuals, but may need to be used if COVID-19 transmission is out of control.”

“WHO has never advocated for national lockdowns as a primary means for controlling the virus. Dr. Nabarro was repeating our advice to governments to ‘do it all,’” the spokesperson said.

To test this premise, we looked at statements by WHO leaders over the course of the pandemic. In the multiple media briefings we reviewed from February onward, the WHO appeared consistent in its messaging about what lockdowns should be deployed for: to give governments time to respond to a high number of COVID-19 cases and get a reprieve for health care workers. Although WHO leaders in February supported the shutting down of the city of Wuhan, China, the presumed source of the COVID-19 outbreak, they have also acknowledged that lockdowns can have serious economic effects, and that robust testing, contact tracing and physical distancing are usually preferable to completely locking down.

There is also no evidence the WHO “admitted” Trump was right about lockdowns.

Our Ruling

Trump tweeted on Monday and then said later that night at a campaign rally that the WHO admitted he was right about lockdowns.

We found no evidence the WHO made this admission. And, based on a review of WHO communications, we found its messaging on the topic has been consistent since the pandemic’s early days.

Trump also appears to have relied on a brief video clip of a wide-ranging interview with WHO special envoy Dr. David Nabarro that didn’t give an accurate portrayal of how Nabarro characterized the use of this intervention.

We rate this statement False.

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