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Despite Trump’s characterization, coronavirus is not in U.S. ‘rearview mirror’

In accepting his party’s nomination on the final night of the Republican National Convention, President Trump characterized the United States’ response to the coronavirus pandemic as a success that saved American lives. But the metrics he referenced create an inaccurate impression. William Brangham joins Judy Woodruff to discuss how the U.S. response compares to that of its peer nations.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For a deeper look at some of the president's statements, specifically on the pandemic, I'm joined by William Brangham.

    So, hello, William.

    You have been listening closely to what was said last night, the claims made about progress on the pandemic and all week. Tell us what you have heard.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    As Amna was just reporting, the message of the RNC seemed to be saying, the pandemic is behind us, it's in the rearview mirror.

    But, by almost any measure, it is not in our rearview mirror, five million cases; 180,000 Americans have already died. I mean, in just the four days of this convention, we lost more Americans to COVID-19 than were lost on 9/11. And that's just four days of this convention.

    So, by — the president likes to tout the case fatality rate going down. But most public health experts think that's a very inaccurate metric.

    I'd like to show you this graphic here that gives you a better measure of this. We are still losing more Americans to this virus than other nations. This is a coronavirus deaths per million in developed nations. That red line at the top, that is the U.S.'s rate.

    All those other little lines at the bottom on the right-hand side are other modern nations, very similar to us, Canada, Australia, the European Union, South Korea. You can see that red line is far above them. We are losing far more Americans than these other nations.

    And the fact is, those nations don't have better doctors. They don't have more effective medications. They simply mounted a more effective response.

    And on this chart, you can see the results. More of their citizens are still alive than ours.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, William, what are some of the differences in how those nations responded, compared to how the United States has?

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, testing is a big one. We have talked about this a great deal of times.

    The president touts that we have tested more people than anywhere in the world. If you believe the Chinese, they have actually tested more people, but that's maybe not the best metric.

    We have tested a lot of people, but we know there are still shortages in many parts of the country. Many people are waiting days and days and days to get their test results back, which virtually makes them useless.

    And, so, many people asked why didn't the president, say, deploy the Defense Production Act to address those shortages, to make more chemicals, make more equipment, make more swabs, those kinds of things that could have addressed that?

    Those other nations also had more uniform messaging about things like social distancing and mask wearing and the importance of keeping your distance. Those things are important, and we have not seen consistent messaging from the president here.

    So, it's not that those nations all did the exact same thing, but what they did was, they took it seriously and they started at the beginning, and they have kept it up consistently. And we see the results.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, William, we also heard the president say, we could have a vaccine in just a few months.

    Is that realistic?

  • William Brangham:

    That's right. He said we could have one by the end of the year or even sooner, which would mean within the next couple of months.

    That is a very aggressive timeline. Most of the predictions have been that that could happen longer. It's possible. The federal government, to its credit, has plowed billions of dollars to help vaccine manufacturers try to speed up this process.

    But we just don't know. There's no immediate knowledge whether that's going to come immediately or take into, say, next year.

    The caveat I hear a lot is that, given the president's exaggerations about other coronavirus treatments, like hydroxychloroquine, which fizzled out, or, just this week, we saw a serious misstatement about the effectiveness of convalescent plasma, those things make a lot of people think, I'm not necessarily sure that the president is talking about these things to help public health, but he's more interested in boosting his election chances.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just finally, very quickly, William, you have a very special project coming up next week.

    Every night on the program, we're going to feature one of your special reports comparing health care in the United States with care in other countries. We're very much looking forward to that.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    This is trying to look at, how is it that we have such incredible technology in the United States, and yet so many millions of people dying of preventable diseases? We go to three other nations that cover everybody. They do it cheaper than we do, and we're trying to look, what can those nations' experience teach us about making our system better?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, as we say, we are very much looking forward.

    William Brangham, thank you.

  • William Brangham:

    You're welcome, Judy.

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