Fact Check: Officials NOT Wrong To Impose Safety Measures, And COVID-19 IS A Pandemic

Fact Check

  • by: Tom Watkins
Fact Check: Officials NOT Wrong To Impose Safety Measures, And COVID-19 IS A Pandemic Data Misread

Does the average American have less than two-tenths of one percent chance of getting coronavirus and, even if so, would that mean that U.S. public health officials were wrong to mandate the precautionary measures they have instituted? No, that's not true: The claim stems from a calculation based on evidence that is incomplete.

The claim was made by conservative pundit William "Bill" Bennett on Fox News (archived here) on April 13, 2020, then shared in a tweet from "Bobby Lewis on Twitter," which opened:

"Fox News contributor Bill Bennett compares coronavirus to the flu, claiming that "this was not and is not a pandemic."

This is what the post looked like on Twitter at the time of writing:

Twitter screenshot

Here is the video, using an embed from Media Matters for America:

"If you're [an] average American, two-tenths of one percent chance you're going to get it," Bennett, a Fox News contributor, told "Fox & Friends" on April 13 about the coronavirus.

Bennett appears to have calculated that figure by dividing the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States (572,587 as of April 13) by the total U.S. population (approximately 330 million). That yields a figure of 0.17 percent, which is indeed less than two-tenths of one percent.

"For this, we scared the hell out of the American people; we lost 17 million jobs; we put a major dent in the economy," Bennett said.

But the confirmed caseload almost certainly underestimates the number of cases, considering testing in the United States remains unavailable for many. A report from China concluded that the vast majority of all infections (86%) were undocumented before January 23, 2020, when the Chinese government imposed travel restrictions out of Wuhan.

And the figure cited by Bennett, which translates into fewer than 2 out of 1,000 Americans, is changing day by day as more data is collected.

As Bennett rightly points out, a prediction model from the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) has estimated the total number of Americans who will die from the disease at approximately 60,000, fewer than the number of Americans estimated to have died from the flu in 2017-2018, and down from more than 81,000 deaths that the organization had predicted on April 5.

But public health experts point to the lowered predictions of death tolls as evidence that the social-distancing precautions put in place around the country are working; not as evidence that they were never needed or that they should be lifted now.

If those precautions were to be lifted en masse, the same conditions that led to the original spread of the disease could result in more infections and more deaths, public health officials say.

"Our model assumes social distancing stays in place until the pandemic, in its current phase, reaches the point when deaths are less than 0.3 per million people," the IHME says on its website. "Based on our latest projections, we expect social distancing measures to be in place through the end of May."

But the IHME modelers note that human behavior is not easy to predict.

The timeline could change based on what data show about the trajectory of the pandemic. In the meantime, we are working to forecast what would happen if social distancing measures are lifted before the pandemic is under control, and we will share these projections as soon as our work is complete."

That was not the only inaccuracy in the interview. In it, Bennett declared, "This was not an is not a pandemic. But we do have panic and pandemonium as a result of the hype of this, and it's really unfortunate. Look at the facts."

Those facts include the March 11 declaration by the director-general of the World Health Organization that the outbreak was indeed a pandemic.

"WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction," said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. "We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic."

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Lead Stories is working with the CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 fact-checkers who are fighting misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about the alliance here.

  Tom Watkins

Tom Watkins is a reporter/editor who has worked for news organizations for more than 30 years. After earning his undergraduate degree in biology from Brown University and his master's from Columbia Journalism School, he rose from reporter to managing editor at Medical Tribune, a newspaper that circulated to more than 1 million doctors worldwide. 
He then spent 24 years at CNN's Atlanta headquarters in a variety of roles, from medical producer to producer/correspondent to news editor on the website. Since leaving CNN in 2014, he has worked for the World Health Organization's Health Emergencies Programme in Geneva and edited books for Hachette Book Group. He is based in New York City.

Read more about or contact Tom Watkins

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