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President Trump said Wednesday he could not confirm the veracity of the numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths being reported by China, as he warned Americans to brace for more “horrific” days in dealing with the virus.
While Trump said the numbers being reported by Beijing “seem to be a little on the light side,” the president and National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien said they currently have no way to confirm the number of COVID-19 cases being reported by the Chinese government. The comments follow accusations from critics that China is underreporting its cases.
“We are not in the position to confirm any of the numbers coming from China,” O’Brien said during the daily White House coronavirus task force press briefing. “We just have no way to confirm any of those numbers.”
The president put it more bluntly: “As far as the numbers, I’m not an accountant from China.”
Trump also reiterated his somber message from Tuesday’s briefing that the country is in for a hard time as it continues to battle the virus.
“We are going to have a couple of weeks starting pretty much now but especially a few days from now that are going to be horrific,” Trump said.
The White House announced on Tuesday the extension of the social distancing guidelines after Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and other public health officials on the White House coronavirus task force ominously warned that even if the U.S. were to continue to do what it was doing — keeping the economy closed and most Americans in their homes — the coronavirus could still leave 100,000 to 240,000 people in the United States dead and millions infected.
Without any measures in place to mitigate the contagion’s spread, those projections jump to between 1.5 and 2.2 million deaths from COVID-19.
To slow the spread of the virus, Trump said his administration is weighing stopping domestic flights in the U.S., although he he is reticent to do so given the economic impact and said if implemented it would only be from virus “hot spots.” He also advised faith leaders against violating stay-at-home orders and holding services amid reports of some churches holding gatherings.
“If you do that you are really giving this invisible enemy a really big advantage,” he said.
With the U.S. leading the world in the number of confirmed cases — by almost 100,000 — both public health officials and lawmakers in the United States have expressed skepticism about the numbers of coronavirus cases coming out of China — fueled by official efforts to quash bad news in the early days and a general distrust of the government. Long lines of people waiting to collect the ashes of loved ones at funeral homes last week revived the debate.
The outbreak began in China’s Hubei province — specifically in the city of Wuhan — in late 2019 and has resulted in about 82,000 cases and 3,300 deaths in the country, according to numbers compiled by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. has reported more than 206,000 cases and more than 4,000 deaths.
The health system in Wuhan, the city where three-fourths of China’s victims died, was overwhelmed at the peak of the outbreak. Hospitals overflowed, patients with symptoms were sent home and there weren’t enough kits to test everyone. In any country, getting a complete picture in the fog of war is virtually impossible.
For the last two weeks, Wuhan has reported no new cases almost every day. It’s a remarkable decline from the thousands it reported every day until mid-February, and the hundreds into early March.
But China decided early to stop including in its count those who test positive for the virus but don’t have any symptoms. The World Health Organization asks member countries to report asymptomatic lab-confirmed cases, though most with big outbreaks don’t have the testing capacity to identify them.
Earlier on Wednesday, Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, ramped up his call for the State Department to investigate China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic following a report that the Chinese Communist Party concealed the extent of the outbreak and underreported the number of coronavirus cases and deaths in the country.
The report by U.S. intelligence officials, which was first published by Bloomberg, says that leaders in Beijing intentionally underreported the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
“Even before news of this report was released it was clear that the Chinese Communist Party is not a trustworthy partner in the fight against COVID-19,” McCaul said in a statement. “They lied to the world about the human to human transmission of the virus, silenced doctors and journalists who tried to report the truth, and are now apparently hiding the accurate number of people impacted by this disease.”
During the press conference, Trump deferred in answering a question about the intelligence report, saying only that he has a good relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping but the numbers did seem low given the vastness of the contagion’s outbreak in China.
“The numbers seem to be a little on the light side relative to what we have witnessed and what was reported,” Trump said.
China also has a history of downplaying and covering up issues ranging from public health crises and national disasters to economic issues and toxic consumer products.
Seventeen years ago, China tried to cover up the extent of the SARS outbreak, another coronavirus that spread beyond its borders. The government is being far more open this time, but it can’t shake the distrust at home and abroad.
“The Chinese government has been taking an open, transparent and responsible attitude all along and publishing the latest figures to the world every day,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Wednesday.
Overseas researchers have long been skeptical of Chinese economic reports that show high and unusually stable growth for a developing country, The economy might be up to 21% smaller than official data indicate, according to a 2018 study by Yingyao Hu and Jiaxiong Yao of Johns Hopkins University.
With coronavirus, China has played up the efforts of the Communist Party and the sacrifices of medical workers to tackle the crisis, while suppressing reports about hospital overcrowding and reprimanding medical workers for rumor-mongering after they tried to raise the alarm about the emergence of a possible new disease. It’s a formula that invites skepticism, whether the government is telling the truth or not.
Along with expressing skepticism in China’s reporting, the Trump administration also announced on Wednesday that the U.S. military was stepping up its efforts to combat drug trafficking as reports surface that Mexican cartels are looking to exploit the pandemic to smuggle more cocaine and heroin into the country.
“There is a growing threat that cartels, malign actors and other criminals will try to exploit the situation for their own gain,” Trump said. “We must not let the drug cartels exploit the pandemic to threaten American lives.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.