By Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Defending early missteps in the U.S. response to the coronavirus, President Donald Trump has repeatedly boasted of travel restrictions on China that he suggests he put in place on his own over the objections of health experts and saved “thousands” of lives.
His claims aren’t substantiated.
“We’re the ones that gave the great response, and we’re the ones that kept China out of here. ... If I didn’t do that early call on China — and nobody wanted that to happen. Everybody thought it was just unnecessary to do it,” Trump said at a news briefing on Wednesday.
“Everybody was against it,” he’d said on Fox News a day earlier. “Almost everybody, I would say, was just absolutely against it. ... I made a decision to close off to China that was weeks early. ... And I must say, doctors — nobody wanted to make that decision at the time.”
At a news briefing on March 19 he’d said: “I’ll tell you how prepared I was: I called for a ban.”
His decision was far from a solo one, nor was it made over opposition from health experts, as the White House coronavirus task force makes clear. His decision followed a consensus by his public health advisers that the restrictions should take place.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who was coordinator of the task force at the time and announced the travel restrictions, said Trump made the decision in late January after accepting the “uniform recommendation of the career public health officials here at HHS.”
While the World Health Organization did advise against the overuse of travel restrictions, Azar told reporters in February that his department’s career health officials had made a “considered recommendation, which I and the president adopted” in a bid to slow spread of the virus.
Most major airlines had already suspended flights to China prior to the announcement on Jan. 31, following the lead of several major international carriers that had stopped due to the coronavirus outbreak. Delta, American and United cited a sharp drop in demand for the flights, and an earlier State Department advisory told Americans not to travel to China because of the outbreak.
As to the result of the decision, Trump has been out on a limb, saying, at a news briefing on Wednesday, “And if we didn’t do that, thousands and thousands of people would have died.”
In reality, the impact hasn’t been quantified. While Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health has praised the travel restrictions on China for slowing the virus, it’s not known how big an impact they had or if “thousands and thousands” of lives were saved.
There were plenty of gaps in containment.
Trump’s order did not fully “close” the U.S. off to China, as he asserts. It temporarily barred entry by foreign nationals who had traveled in China within the previous 14 days, with exceptions for the immediate family of U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Americans returning from China were allowed back after screening at select ports of entry and for 14 days afterward. But U.S. scientists say screenings can miss people who don’t yet show symptoms of COVID-19; while symptoms often appear within five or six days of exposure, the incubation period is 14 days.
A recent study from the journal Science found China’s internal crackdown modestly delayed the spread of the virus. It cast doubt that travel restrictions elsewhere will do much compared with other preventive measures, citing in part the likelihood that a large number of people exposed to the virus had already been traveling internationally without being detected.
For weeks after the first U.S. case of the coronavirus was confirmed in January, government missteps caused a shortage of reliable laboratory tests for the coronavirus, leading to delays in diagnoses.
About one-third of Americans are now under government orders to stay at home to help stop the spread of the virus.