At a recent press briefing on the current health crisis facing the United States, President Donald Trump's pandemic response coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, made a highly misleading claim.
Birx said that "almost 40 percent" of the country had experienced a low level of spread of the virus despite having early casesk.
Birx portrayed this as a reason for optimism, saying:
"We do have 19 out of our 50 states, to be reminded, that had early cases, but have persistently low level of cases, and at this point have less than 200 cases. So that's almost 40 percent of the country with extraordinarily low numbers."
The claim benefits Trump in numerous ways. It bolsters his position that the United States should be back "up and running" by Easter—against the near-unanimous advice of health experts. It also gives him an opportunity to place the blame for more populous blue states' outbreaks on their governors, rather than on the federal government's ineptitude.
The problem? It's highly misleading.
As Phillip Bump of The Washington Post points out:
"[T]here's the simple fact that 19 states is not necessarily equivalent to "almost 40 percent of the country." As of Thursday, Johns Hopkins' data had 17 states which had fewer than 200 confirmed cases. Those 17 states are one-third of the 50 states and D.C. But they are also home to just over 7 percent of the country's population."
For obvious reasons, the virus spreads more slowly in states with fewer people and more land than in places like New York City. Similar to oft-repeated complaints about the Electoral College, a proportion of states doesn't necessarily reflect an equal portion of Americans.
Nevertheless, Birx's misleading claim did its job, and soon officials from the Trump campaign and Republican National Committee were sharing it far and wide as evidence that the threat posed by the virus is overblown.
After some pointed out the flaws in GOP National Spokesperson Elizabeth Harrington's logic, she responded with more empty words.
People expressed concern about Dr. Birx's motivations for making the claim.
They called out the misinformation that ensued from it as well.
The United States recently surpassed China in the number of confirmed cases. China's population is four times higher than that of the United States.