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Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden participates in a CNN town hall in Moosic, Pa., on Sept. 17, 2020. (AP/Kaster) Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden participates in a CNN town hall in Moosic, Pa., on Sept. 17, 2020. (AP/Kaster)

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden participates in a CNN town hall in Moosic, Pa., on Sept. 17, 2020. (AP/Kaster)

Bill McCarthy
By Bill McCarthy September 18, 2020

Joe Biden wrongly claims Trump could’ve prevented every COVID-19 death

If Your Time is short

  • Experts said Joe Biden’s claim that a different pandemic response from President Donald Trump would have prevented every coronavirus death goes too far.

  • A more robust handling of the pandemic would likely have seen the country’s death count significantly reduced, but not to zero, experts said.

  • Even countries that have found relative success managing the coronavirus — such as South Korea and New Zealand — have seen some deaths.

Speaking about the coronavirus during a CNN town hall less than two months away from Election Day, former Vice President Joe Biden said every one of the nearly 200,000 COVID-19 deaths recorded in the U.S. can be laid at President Donald Trump’s feet.

"If the president had done his job, had done his job from the beginning, all the people would still be alive," Biden said at the CNN town hall in Moosic, Pa. "All the people. I'm not making this up. Just look at the data. Look at the data."

The Democratic presidential nominee’s remark came as Trump faces criticism for downplaying the threat of the coronavirus early on and admitting on tape that he did so. The U.S. leads the world in confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths, and experts say a fall surge in cases could put fatalities at more than double their current number by the year’s end.

A more robust handling of the pandemic would likely have seen the country’s death count significantly reduced, experts said. But Biden’s claim that a different response from Trump would have prevented every coronavirus death goes too far.

"I think it’s impossible to say every life could have been saved," said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security.

Keeping COVID-19 at zero deaths would have been a difficult achievement "regardless of who is in charge," said Brooke Nichols, an assistant professor of global health at Boston University. 

"If we had developed testing capacity as soon as we knew of the pathogen, and could rapidly test every one arriving from abroad, then I suppose it’s theoretically possible, but unlikely," Nichols said.

Even countries that have found relative success managing the coronavirus — such as South Korea and New Zealand — have seen some deaths. 

Experts said that faster, more robust measures taken by the federal government could have put the U.S. on par with those countries and others that responded similarly. 

The right actions in January, February and March would likely have prevented "a substantial number" of deaths, Adalja said, and could have put the U.S. on "a trajectory more like Taiwan," which has recorded just 503 confirmed cases and seven deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Those actions might have included a national coordinated strategy across state lines, rapidly scaled up testing, the ramped up production and mobilization of resources, and more clear communications of what was known about the virus and how to prevent it, experts said.

"Obviously, you could logically say that if you had a process that was ongoing and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told CNN in April. "Obviously, no one is going to deny that."

RELATED: Timeline: How Donald Trump responded to the coronavirus pandemic

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One May study from Columbia University estimated that the U.S. could have averted roughly 36,000 COVID-19 deaths before May if sweeping mitigation measures imposed on March 15 had instead gone into effect a week earlier. 

Almost 54,000 deaths would have been avoided in that timeframe had the same interventions started two weeks earlier, the study said.

"Had we mustered the political and public will to act as we did two weeks earlier, 90% of deaths through the beginning of May would have been averted," said study author Jeffrey Shaman, a professor of environmental health sciences. 

But the study "doesn’t blame Trump," Shaman said, although he added that "the country has witnessed a complete lack of federal leadership."

Other experts have also made estimates. A pair of epidemiologists wrote in an April op-ed for the New York Times that "an estimated 90% of deaths" from the first wave of U.S. cases "might have been prevented by putting social distancing policies into effect two weeks earlier." 

Op-ed co-author Nicholas Jewell, a professor of biostatistics at the University of California, Berkeley, said it would be "magical thinking" to suggest 100% of COVID-19 deaths could have been prevented. "I haven’t seen any country really succeed to that extent," Jewell said.

In a June op-ed for Stat, researchers compared the U.S. response to similar nations. Accounting for differences in population and the different timings of the outbreaks in each country, they concluded that the U.S. could have prevented many deaths. 

If, for example, the U.S. "had acted as effectively as Germany, 70% of U.S. coronavirus deaths might have been prevented" in the four months after the U.S. recorded its first 15 cases of the coronavirus, the researchers wrote. More lives would have been saved had the U.S. mirrored the responses of other countries such as South Korea, they said.

The picture hasn’t been much rosier of late. "If you look at May and June 1, since then, we’ve done dreadfully in the U.S.," Jewell said.

Still, Biden’s claim that "all the people would still be alive" had Trump responded differently is an overstatement. "I don’t see how there is any truth to that," Nichols said.

The Biden campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Our ruling

Biden said, "If the president had done his job, had done his job from the beginning, all the people would still be alive. All the people. I'm not making this up. Just look at the data."

Experts disagreed with that assessment. A stronger U.S. response could have saved many lives, experts said, but not every one.

We rate this statement False.

Our Sources

World Health Organization, "WHO Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Dashboard," Sept. 18, 2020

Politico, "'Talk about losers': The top moments from CNN’s kid-gloves town hall with Biden," Sept. 18, 2020

CNN Replay on Facebook, "Health expert: Lives could have been saved if US acted earlier," Sept. 18, 2020

The Washington Post, "Joe Biden’s CNN town hall: An occasional whopper," Sept. 17, 2020

Vox News, "If the US had Canada’s Covid-19 death rate, 100,000 more Americans would likely be alive today," Sept. 9, 2020

The Washington Post, "Experts warn U.S. covid-19 deaths could more than double by year’s end," Sept. 4, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "COVID-19 Nursing Home Data," Sept. 6, 2020

The Federation of State PIRGs, ""Shut Down, Start Over, Do It Right," Sept. 1, 2020

The Atlantic, "How the Pandemic Defeated America," Aug. 4, 2020

Stat, "How many needless Covid-19 deaths were caused by delays in responding? Most of them," June 19, 2020

Columbia University, "Differential Effects of Intervention Timing on COVID-19 Spread in the United States," May 20, 2020

The New York Times, "The Huge Cost of Waiting to Contain the Pandemic," April 14, 2020

State of the Union on Twitter, April 12, 2020

PolitiFact, "Fact-checking Mike Pence, night 3 of the 2020 RNC," Aug. 26, 2020

PolitiFact, "‘We don’t want that,’ Trump says of New Zealand after country reported nine new COVID-19 cases," Aug. 18, 2020

PolitiFact, "Are COVID-19 travel restrictions ‘more critical in saving lives’ than testing? Not really," April 3, 2020

PolitiFact, "Timeline: How Donald Trump responded to the coronavirus pandemic," March 20, 2020

PolitiFact, "Was the novel coronavirus really sneaky in its spread to the U.S.? Experts say no," March 19, 2020

Email interview with Jeffrey Shaman, professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Sept. 18, 2020

Email interview with Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, Sept. 18, 2020

Email interview with Brooke Nichols, assistant professor of global health at Boston University, Sept. 18, 2020

Phone interview with Nicholas Jewell, professor of biostatistics at the University of California, Berkeley, Sept. 18, 2020

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Joe Biden wrongly claims Trump could’ve prevented every COVID-19 death

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