Coronavirus: Trump oversells breakthroughs in boasts of US response to pandemic

As of this week, President Donald Trump has declared himself a "wartime president".
As of this week, President Donald Trump has declared himself a "wartime president".PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - A hospital ship that can't yet sail, a drug that's not approved for coronavirus, a windfall of masks that's not due until next year. Donald Trump has repeatedly overstated his government's accomplishments as he tries to calm Americans and fight the spread of coronavirus.

In news conferences intended to explain the government's actions to a public that's practically stopped engaging social interactions or large swathes of the economy out of fear of the virus, the president has sold incremental steps as major breakthroughs, tentative moves as final and long-term measures as immediate relief.

The coronavirus outbreak has rapidly become the biggest crisis of Trump's presidency, straining both the nation's health care system and its economy just months before the president must stand for re-election. As of this week, Trump has declared himself a "wartime president", shifting abruptly from minimising the threat of the virus and endorsing massive government spending to combat its fallout.

But with his new, more activist approach has come misstatements.

On Tuesday (March 17), he announced that a naval hospital ship, the Mercy, would sail to New York in case it was needed to treat infected Americans, while another, the Comfort, was in San Diego and would head up the west coast.

"So those two ships are being prepared to go, and they can be launched over the next week or so," Trump said. "I spoke with Governor Cuomo about it. He's excited about it."

It turned out that Trump had confused the ships - the Comfort is in Virginia, the Mercy is in San Diego. Worse, the Comfort is undergoing repairs and isn't immediately available to go to New York.

"Timing-wise, that is a little bit more difficult," Jonathan Hoffman, an assistant to the Secretary of Defense, told reporters on Wednesday. "The Comfort's currently in for maintenance in Norfolk, and so they're going to expedite the maintenance that they can and prepare it. That's not a days issue; that's a weeks issue, so it's going to be a little while."

On Wednesday (March 18), Trump met nurses, telling them the government had ordered 500 million N95 respirator masks - a key piece of personal protective equipment, or PPE, that is in shortage in the US.

He declined to mention that the order was placed 14 days ago, and will take 18 months to fill. Meanwhile, health professionals are in such desperate need for the masks that some have posted on social media asking neighbours to donate them.

Then on Thursday (March 19), Trump hailed a decades-old malaria drug, chloroquine, as a potential treatment for the coronavirus.

 
 
 

"Normally, the FDA would take a long time to approve something like that, and it's - it was approved very, very quickly and it's now approved by prescription," Trump said.

It was the FDA's turn for cleanup. A spokesman for the agency said shortly after Trump's remarks that the drug hadn't been approved for use against coronavirus. Doctors, however, can prescribe it "off-label" to coronavirus patients.

Vice-President Mike Pence, whom Trump appointed to direct the government's coronavirus response, has also tended to portray the US response to the virus in the most optimistic light possible.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Thursday that his state alone would need about 25,000 hospital ventilators to treat coronavirus patients as the outbreak grows, roughly twice what the Trump administration has said is in a federal stockpile of the machines.

"Every state is shopping for ventilators," Cuomo said on Thursday. "We literally have people in China shopping for ventilators."

But Pence downplayed the need for the devices. He said Thursday that the administration has identified "tens of thousands of ventilators" that can be "converted" to treat coronavirus patients. "We remain increasingly confident that we will have the ventilators that we need as the coronavirus makes its way across America," he said.

He has similarly over-promised on coronavirus testing. On March 10, Pence said that "a million tests are in the field" and that "by the end of this week, another 4 million tests will be distributed."

About 104,000 Americans had been tested for the virus by Thursday, according to the Covid19 Tracking Project, which relies on data from states to count the number of tests performed.