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."
Dr. Birx: “We do have 19 out of our 50 states, to be reminded, that had early cases but persistently low level of c… https://t.co/94lyvYSv4l— ALX 🇺🇸 (@ALX 🇺🇸)1585261834.0
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.
Good news! 19 out of 50 states had early cases of coronavirus, but have persistently low levels of cases "That's… https://t.co/bQOaqkXsLd— Elizabeth Harrington (@Elizabeth Harrington)1585262110.0
BIG NEWS from President @realDonaldTrump’s Chinese Virus task force briefing! Dr. Birx shared that 40% of the coun… https://t.co/GTgbFc6tQ8— Kayleigh McEnany (@Kayleigh McEnany)1585261347.0
After some pointed out the flaws in GOP National Spokesperson Elizabeth Harrington's logic, she responded with more empty words.
Lots of blue check marks very upset that Middle America counts as a percentage of the country I guess we should b… https://t.co/y7qiHb96YA— Elizabeth Harrington (@Elizabeth Harrington)1585264792.0
People expressed concern about Dr. Birx's motivations for making the claim.
The one comment by Birx that worried me that she’s trying to present an overly rosy picture. She’s a number crunch… https://t.co/2tAnNEXdXF— Josh Kraushaar (@Josh Kraushaar)1585263432.0
@sciencecohen @CIDRAP A couple of months ago, New York and California probably had fewer than 200 cases. Birx is onboard the Trump train.— rickrow (@rickrow)1585262987.0
@JSEllenberg She also said “nearly 40%” of America has been barely affected by COVID-19. The states she was referri… https://t.co/UbZ1YFeJSv— Stuart Rojstaczer (@Stuart Rojstaczer)1585277905.0
40% of the Senate maybe. https://t.co/y5zJF9Gjyg— Jordan Ellenberg (@Jordan Ellenberg)1585278133.0
This seems like some of the worst news of the day - that one of the top doctors handling the pandemic is spouting n… https://t.co/T4Z2XtTEdQ— Bill Grueskin (@Bill Grueskin)1585277025.0
They called out the misinformation that ensued from it as well.
OMG. We have more cases than any other country. You liars are disgusting and dangerous. https://t.co/8YC1F9iERE— San Carlos (@San Carlos)1585283344.0
@LizRNC Thank God that 40% of the number of states are doing well, and as we all know, that means 40% of the people… https://t.co/Oid9K1P9g8— Kevin M. Kruse (@Kevin M. Kruse)1585263975.0
Land is NOT people. Stop this. https://t.co/Q64klnrNBj— GirlPowerDon'tQuit (@GirlPowerDon'tQuit)1585316518.0
Duh it's not 40% of the population it's not 40% of the geographical area it's just 40% of the number 50. Consider t… https://t.co/mRJ2mTn99h— priscilla sokolowski (@priscilla sokolowski)1585314886.0
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.