Trump on coronavirus: 'If we stop testing right now, we'd have very few cases, if any.' Why he's dangerously wrong.
While the number of coronavirus cases continues to grow in more than 20 countries and fears of a second wave of hospital stays and deaths have arisen, some politicians have tried to wave away the worrying news with a rudimentary, reassuring explanation.
Of course, the number of COVID-19 cases is increasing. This is what happens when you test more people: you find more infections.
On Monday, President Trump added his voice to this soothing chorus. "Our tests are so much more extensive and advanced than in any other country (we have done a great job here!) That more cases are shown," Trump tweeted in the morning. “Without tests or weak tests, we would show almost no cases. Testing is a double-edged sword - makes us look bad, but good to have !!! "
"If we stop testing now," added the President during an event for senior citizens at the White House, "we would have very few, if any, cases."
And, according to a report in the New York Times, Vice President Mike Pence repeated Trump's reasoning during a Monday call to governors, asking them to "continue to explain to their citizens the scale of the increase in tests" to "encourage people with" the Message that we are sure to reopen the country. "
President Trump at a White House meeting on seniors on Monday. (Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images)
Trump is right on one point: The US is currently carrying out more COVID-19 tests than any other country, overall (approx. 465,000 per day) and per capita (approx. 1.25 per 1,000 inhabitants). But his nonsensical suggestion that a tree falls into the forest, that coronavirus infections would somehow stop if we stopped detecting them, is dangerously misled, and saying this only adds to a feeling of complacency that threatens further accelerate the spread of the virus.
No advanced math is required to debunk Trump's claim. Just look at Florida, where Republican governor Ron DeSantis, one of the president's strongest allies, recently wiped questions from reporters with a similar line.
"If you test more, you will find more cases," DeSantis said Thursday.
Florida has certainly found more cases. On Monday, the Sunshine State reported a daily increase of 1,758 COVID-19 infections. This number follows two days with more than 2,000 new coronavirus cases, including the highest total daily state on Saturday (2,581). It is also the 12th day of the last 13 days when the state has announced more than 1,000 new cases.
This means that Florida's seven-day moving average of COVID-19 infections - an important measure that helps balance daily fluctuations in reporting - has risen daily since the beginning of the month. On June 1, the seven-day average in Florida was 726 cases per day. By June 15, it had more than doubled to 1,775.
If Trump and DeSantis were right that tests are responsible for this increase, it should also turn out to be a proportional increase in the number of new tests that are performed every day over the same period.
However, the data do not show this. In fact, Florida has had roughly the same average number of COVID-19 tests every day for the past month. The state conducted a total of 369,557 tests in the last two weeks of May, an average of 26,396 per day. In the first two weeks of June, the state conducted a total of 387,666 tests, or an average of 27,690 per day.
In other words, the number of tests performed per day in Florida remained unchanged, while the average number of cases more than doubled. And so Trump and DeSantis are wrong: tests don't explain the recent increase in infections in Florida.
The truth about testing is that it provides falling returns. Sure, there is an initial relationship between increased testing and increased case numbers. People who are looking for tests first are most likely to be sick. However, as you increase capacity, you test more and more people with less and less chance of infection. Ultimately, there is little correlation between the number of tests and the extent of an epidemic.
Other data from Florida also reflect this dynamic. For example, if the size of the state outbreak were stable - and if the growing number of cases were simply the inevitable, even desirable by-product of increased testing - the percentage of positive tests per day would decrease (or, in the worst case, remain the same).
Instead, the seven-day moving average of positive tests in Florida rose from 3.85 percent on June 1 to 6.35 percent on June 15.
Beachgoers on the sandy Juno Beach on Monday. (Joe Forzano / The Palm Beach Post via ZUMA Wire)
If Florida only uncovered more cases through increased testing - without actually getting more sick there - the number of residents who appear with COVID-19 in hospitals would be stable.
However, this is not the case. In the past week, the 7-day average of new hospitalizations in the state has increased from just over 100 a day to almost 150 a day.
Florida is hardly alone. Between June 7 and 14, the seven-day moving average of positive tests rose from 6.2 percent to 13.5 percent in Alabama, from 12.3 percent to 15.6 percent in Arizona, from 5.6 percent to 19. 7 percent in Mississippi and from 6.4 percent to 13.7 percent in South Carolina - a sign that their outbreaks are increasing regardless of test capacity. Many other states, including Alaska, Nevada, Idaho, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming, have also seen increasing positive test rates in recent days.
There are some places where testing can actually detect more asymptomatic infections, such as California. There, the 7-day average of total daily tests rose from about 53,000 to 63,000 this month - even though hospital admissions have flattened and the rate of positive tests has dropped from about 5 percent to about 4.5 percent.
But that's not the story in Florida or in many other states where the number of cases is increasing. RT is an epidemiological statistic that shows the portability or number of people who infect a sick person at a particular point in an epidemic. An RT below 1.0 indicates that each person infects less than another person on average. An RT above 1.0 indicates that an outbreak is increasing. Six weeks ago, only 10 states had an RT of 1.0 or higher. Today, 18 states are hovering above this troubling threshold.
At the moment none of these states looks like the next New York City. The percentage of COVID-19 infected residents remains relatively low. The test capacity is much higher than before. Hospitals are not yet thin. People know how to wear masks and keep their distance even when they're tired of it. Americans should not be surprised by new outbreaks.
However, the operative word shouldn't be. If we refuse to accept why these outbreaks are taking place, we can also refuse to do what is necessary to prevent them from getting out of control. If we tell ourselves that all of this is just the result of further tests, we release ourselves from responsibility. Things look bad because we're doing something good, Trump says. Our behavior is not to blame.
But our behavior is to blame. The corona virus does not magically withdraw when a governor decides it is time to loosen the blocking measures. The pathogen continues to spread wherever and whenever people interact less than 6 feet away, without a mask, and especially indoors.
With the reopening of the states - and many of the states with increasing numbers of cases were among the earliest and most eager to resume business as usual - their residents begin to relax social distance. The more people relax, the greater the risk that they will become infected with the coronavirus.
Part of this risk is tolerable - the inevitable cost of coexisting with a virus against which we have not yet developed immunity. But if, like Trump, we insist that it doesn't cost anything to let go of our guard - that the virus won't spread; that increasing numbers of cases are a statistical illusion; that there is no need to be careful - then we may not be able to recognize and react to what is really happening until it is too late.
America has tried this before. It was not going well.
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