As the coronavirus pandemic emerged, President Trump quickly sought to compare his performance to the pandemic that appeared in 2009 under the watch of his predecessor, Barack Obama. He called it a “big failure” and a “debacle,” compounded by “horrific mistakes.” He railed about the death toll, often inflating the figures to 17,000, as he did in this recent tweet.
These criticism might have had some resonance back when there appeared to be relatively few cases in the United States. On March 4, when Trump first attacked Obama’s handling of the swine flu, there were only about 100 reported cases of covid-19 in the United States.
But as of April 17, there were more than 700,000 cases reported in the United States and nearly 40,000 deaths, more than double than what supposedly took place under Obama. One would think Trump would drop this talking point, but apparently he thinks it still works for him.
We’ve tracked this claim in our database of Trump’s false and misleading claims but since he persists in using it, it’s time for a Pinocchio rating. (Note: Contrary to Trump’s tweet, Obama had far better polling numbers than Trump has ever had during the swine flu pandemic, and the Obamacare website did not cost $5 billion.)
One interesting thing about Trump’s constant criticism of the swine flu pandemic is that a key player in the Obama administration effort is someone who is famously at Trump’s side at the coronavirus briefings — Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Then, as now, he briefed the media about the situation. Here’s Fauci in a video answering questions about the swine flu.
We sought comment from Fauci and the National Institutes of Health press office about whether he shared Trump’s opinion of how the Obama administration handled the swine flu, but did not get a response back.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that from April 12, 2009, to April 10, 2010, there were 12,469 deaths in the United States because of the H1N1 (swine flu) virus. That was the midpoint of an estimate that ranged from a low of 8,868 to a high of 18,306. As we noted, Trump often cites this figure as 17,000.
But that was an after-the-fact report, based on statistical modeling of excess mortality. (Watch the video explainer above.) What was the CDC reporting as the swine flu pandemic unfolded? Here’s a comparison of the first 86 days of the 2009 swine flu in the United States and first 86 days of the 2020 covid-19 outbreak.
- April 15, 2009 — first infection detected
- July 10, 2009 — 37,246 cases, 211 deaths
- Jan. 20, 2020 — first infection detected
- April 15, 2020 — 654,425 cases, 32,900 deaths
The 2009-2010 swine flu pandemic is considered to have been relatively mild — and in the United States, it hit harder in a second wave in the fall. Clearly, covid-19 is striking with much more force — and faster.
Only after the swine flu pandemic had passed did researchers use a time series analysis to estimate how many excess deaths in a given period could be attributed to the swine flu but were not counted in the official death statistics. About 6 in 7 deaths are believe to have been missed in the laboratory-confirmed count during the swine-flu pandemic, though such calculations count any death in which the flu might have been a contributing factor. Many deaths are triggered by the flu but occur later, via secondary bacterial infection or exacerbation of underlying chronic diseases, even as flu symptoms may have disappeared.
In other words, when Trump began criticizing Obama over the swine flu, he was comparing apples and oranges — later calculations vs. real-time figures. Now, with the covid-19 real-time death toll more than double the after-the-fact calculations, it’s an especially bizarre comparison.
And what about the administration’s handling of the pandemic — which came at the same time Obama also was dealing the economic fallout from the Great Recession?
In general, Obama got pretty high marks. Going through the after-action reports and Inspector General investigations, it’s hard to find much that would qualify as a “disaster” or “debacle.”
On April 26, 2009, when only 20 cases of H1N1 — and no deaths — around the country had been confirmed, the Obama administration declared H1N1 a public health emergency. The administration quickly sought funding from Congress, receiving almost $8 billion. Six weeks later, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic.
A New York Times assessment in 2010 noted that some flaws in the system were discovered, but overall the government was praised for its response — in part because it turned out that the pandemic was not as severe as it once had appeared. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in August 2009 had forecast 30,000 to 90,000 deaths, and the final death toll was much less than that.
“Federal officials deserve ‘at least a B-plus,’ said William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University’s medical school,” the Times reported. “Even Dr. Peter Palese, a leading virologist at Mount Sinai Medical School, who can be a harsh critic of public policies he disagrees with, called the government’s overall response ‘excellent.’ ”
The biggest problem that emerged was that not enough vaccines were produced, as the U.S. government decided to rely on a 50-year technology involving eggs — and the H1N1 virus grew more slowly in the eggs than expected.
“Even though the six-month goals for initial vaccine delivery were met, most of the vaccine arrived too late to vaccinate much of the public before the pandemic peaked,” the Health and Human Services Department concluded in a lengthy 2012 report, noting that early projections “regarding timing of vaccine supply changed frequently and were inaccurate. This led to public confusion and temporary erosion of confidence in the federal government, and created challenges for the planning and execution of local vaccine administration efforts.”
But, in a bit of luck, it turned out that just one dose was effective, rather than the anticipated two, so the supply that was produced went twice as far. Because the flu turned out to be relatively mild, hospitals were not as stressed as they might have been expected.
The HHS, in its report, noted that “serendipity” played a big role in the successful outcome. “Because the pandemic could have been worse, 2009 H1N1 did not test the nation’s response capabilities to its limits,” the report warned. “Because the health care system was not seriously stressed during the pandemic, its ability to meet a substantial surge in demand was not fully tested and the difficult issues around allocation of scarce resources and crisis standards of care in an emergency did not have to be confronted. If the health care system had been tested to its limits, serious problems may have emerged because the public health and health care delivery systems are not well prepared to address such issues.”
One interesting aspect of the swine-flu episode: Obama rarely spoke about it, leaving public communication to the experts at HHS, CDC and other agencies. They provided regular briefings to the public, not Obama.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
The Pinocchio Test
Reviewing this history, we can only assume that Trump has not studied the swine-flu pandemic very closely. He simply heard a death-toll figure — remembering it incorrectly — and presumably concluded that anything associated with Obama was a debacle. But in reality, the government under Obama worked relatively smoothly, even if it was not tested as in the current pandemic.
As of April 3, when we last updated the database, Trump had criticized Obama’s handling of the swine flu 10 times. Including this most recent tweet, the count now stands at 14. It’s a mystery why Trump persists in this false attack when the facts have turned against him, but this Four-Pinocchio claim looks like it will quickly be another Bottomless Pinocchio.
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The Washington Post Fact Checker 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.