Fact-checking the debate: Pence, Harris crossed the line on coronavirus

Facts on swine flu, empty stockpiles and a porous travel ban

Vice President Mike Pence and California Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic nominee for vice president, met in their only debate Wednesday in Salt Lake City. (Robyn Beck/Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images)
Vice President Mike Pence and California Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic nominee for vice president, met in their only debate Wednesday in Salt Lake City. (Robyn Beck/Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted October 8, 2020 at 5:45am

In the first and only vice presidential debate, Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence parroted many of the false and misleading claims FactCheck.org has analyzed from President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

The debate was held Wednesday at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Here are excerpts from a full analysis posted Thursday on FactCheck.org on charges and claims dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

Swine flu

In defending his record on the coronavirus pandemic, Pence misleadingly pointed to Biden’s handling of 2009’s H1N1 pandemic.

“When Joe Biden was vice president of the United States, not 7.5 million people contracted the swine flu; 60 million Americans contracted the swine flu,” he said. “If the swine flu had been as lethal as the coronavirus in 2009 when Joe Biden was vice president, we would have lost 2 million American lives.”

It’s true that around 60 million Americans are thought to have contracted swine flu — but that’s an estimate based on modeling after the fact, which is not comparable to the raw count of the number of Americans infected with COVID-19. 

And it’s precisely because the influenza pandemic was not especially lethal that fewer precautions were taken to prevent infections.

Pence’s calculation of 2 million deaths appears to be based on a rough estimate of COVID-19’s case fatality rate, or the percentage of people who die who are identified as having the disease. But it’s still a tad high.

According to figures from Johns Hopkins University, the case fatality rate as of Oct. 7 is 2.9 percent worldwide and 2.8 percent in the U.S. If applied to the 60.8 million H1N1 infections the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates occurred, that would be around 1.7 million to 1.8 million deaths.

In reality, though, the pandemic influenza strain was not particularly deadly, and the CDC’s estimate is that 12,469 deaths occurred over a year.

Not only has it not been a full year since the novel coronavirus hit the U.S., but those estimates for the 2009 pandemic are based on modeling — not individually counted cases, unlike the COVID-19 tally — and corrected for underreporting. A similarly estimated number of cases and lost lives from COVID-19 would almost certainly be higher than the current figures.

Dr. Tom Frieden, president and CEO of the global health initiative Resolve to Save Lives, noted in an Oct. 5 blog post that the actual number of coronavirus infections in the U.S. is likely at least 40 million. 

As FactCheck.org has written, the two viruses were very different and required different responses. Frieden, who was head of the CDC during the H1N1 pandemic, told FactCheck.org that in 2009 it wasn’t necessary to trace contacts or ask people to quarantine. The nation also never temporarily shut down to limit the spread of the virus.

“The current pandemic is much more severe,” he said, “which is why we have used public health and social measures to box in the virus.”

Pence then went on to repeat a misleading claim that Trump has made before. Referring to Biden, Pence said, “his own chief of staff, Ron Klain, would say last year that it was pure luck, that they did ‘everything possible wrong.’”

While it’s true that Klain said something similar at a May 14, 2019, Pandemic and Biosecurity Policy Summit, he has also said that his comments are out of context when presented like that.

As FactCheck.org has written before, Klain said he was talking specifically about delays in the rollout of the vaccine, not the Obama administration’s overall response to the H1N1 pandemic.

Testing not enough

So far, the president and 10 other people who attended a Sept. 26 White House announcement of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee have tested positive for COVID-19. In answering a question about the White House not following its own safety guidelines during that incident, Pence said that “many of the people who were at that event … actually were tested for coronavirus” and that “it was an outdoor event, which all of our scientists regularly routinely advise.” 

But, as FactCheck.org has written before, testing is not enough to prevent infection. It can take days for COVID-19 to become detectable in an infected person, and the rapid tests used by the White House are less sensitive than traditional tests. 

As Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina explained on Twitter, tests are “not prophylactics.”

“They alone cannot stop the test taker from getting infected. But can serve to stop onward spread from the tester,” he wrote. “To stop from getting infected, masks/social distancing are needed.”

And while outdoor events do mitigate some of the risk of COVID-19 spreading, scientists have made it clear that gatherings such as Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s introduction in the Rose Garden are still dangerous. The CDC classifies large outdoor or indoor gatherings “where it is difficult for individuals to remain spaced at least 6 feet apart and attendees travel from outside the local area” as “highest risk.” The CDC also recommends mask-wearing among other safety measures to further minimize infection risk.

And while Pence referred to the ceremony as an “outdoor event,” that’s not entirely accurate. In addition to the outdoor reception in the Rose Garden, there was also an indoor reception in the White House. The New York Times published several photos from that reception, which was attended by the president, Barrett and her family, and other prominent Republicans — all maskless and close together.

Trump’s ‘hoax’ comment

When asked about the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19, Harris said, “The president said it was a hoax.” Trump referred to the Democrats’ “new hoax” after talking about the coronavirus at a rally on Feb. 28 in South Carolina, but clarified the next day he was referring to Democrats finding fault with his administration’s response to the coronavirus, not the virus itself.

At the late February rally, Trump said: “Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus, you know that, right? Coronavirus, they’re politicizing it. We did one of the great jobs. You say, ‘How’s President Trump doing?’ They go, ‘Oh, not good, not good.’ They have no clue. They don’t have any clue. … They tried the impeachment hoax. … They tried anything. … And this is their new hoax.”

The following day, after the first death in the U.S. from the coronavirus, Trump was asked in a press conference if he regretted using the word “hoax.” He replied: “No. No. No. Hoax referring to the action that they take to try and pin this on somebody because we’ve done such a good job. The hoax is on them not — I’m not talking about what’s happening here. I’m talking what they’re doing. That’s the hoax.”

Pandemic planning team

The candidates disagreed about how the Trump administration handled a National Security Council group dedicated to planning the national response to global health security threats, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s a weird obsession that President Trump has had with getting rid of whatever accomplishment was achieved by President [Barack] Obama and Vice President Biden. For example, they created within the White House an office that basically was responsible for monitoring pandemics,” Harris said. “They got rid of it.”

Pence shook his head and said, “Not true.”

FactCheck.org has written about this issue before. Here’s what actually happened:

The Obama administration created a group tasked with global health security and biodefense within the National Security Council in 2016, following a yearslong Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Shortly after Trump took office, he appointed Rear Adm. R. Timothy Ziemer to lead the group. Ziemer had coordinated the President’s Malaria Initiative under both President George W. Bush and Obama.

Ziemer left abruptly a little over a year later, just as a new Ebola outbreak was starting in Congo, and he wasn’t replaced.

Numerous experts and groups at the time had cautioned against doing away with that position, but getting rid of it didn’t necessarily mean that everyone who was part of the team was fired or that all of its functions ceased.

Responding to claims at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that the office had been dissolved, Tim Morrison, former senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense for the NSC, said the group had been reorganized. He wrote in the Washington Post on March 16 that the administration “create[d] the counterproliferation and biodefense directorate, which was the result of consolidating three directorates into one, given the obvious overlap between arms control and nonproliferation, weapons of mass destruction terrorism, and global health and biodefense. It is this reorganization that critics have misconstrued or intentionally misrepresented.”

Morrison led that directorate for a year, he wrote, before leaving that position. Another official replaced him, he said. The administration has decreased staffing at the NSC, something Morrison said was needed after “bloat” under the previous administration.

Similarly, John Bolton, who was the national security adviser at the time Ziemer left, said on Twitter in March: “Claims that streamlining NSC structures impaired our nation’s bio defense are false. Global health remained a top NSC priority, and its expert team was critical to effectively handling the 2018-19 Africa Ebola crisis.”

Also at the time, Beth Cameron, former senior director for the NSC team under Obama, wrote in the Post that disbanding that directorate “left an unclear structure and strategy for coordinating pandemic preparedness and response.”

Months before the pandemic arose, a report issued in November 2019 by the bipartisan think tank Center for Strategic & International Studies had recommended that the global health security and biodefense directorate be reinstated. It reasoned, “Health security is national security. Strong, coherent, senior-level leadership at the National Security Council (NSC) is essential to guarantee effective oversight of global health security and biodefense policy and spending, speed and rigor in decisionmaking, and reliable White House engagement and coordination when dangerous pandemics inevitably strike.”

The directorate hasn’t been reinstated, but since parts of it have been reorganized elsewhere in the NSC, saying that it was eliminated completely goes too far.

Stockpile wasn’t empty

Pence repeated the false claim that the Obama administration left the Strategic National Stockpile “empty.” That’s not so.

Some personal protective equipment, such as N95 respirator masks, distributed from the stockpile to states during 2009’s H1N1 influenza pandemic was not restocked. But that doesn’t mean there were none of those items available when Trump was inaugurated.

As of 2016, the year before Trump took office, there were at least six warehouses holding “approximately $7 billion in products across more than 900 separate line items,” according to a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. In addition, reporters who were allowed to tour at least one of the U.S. facilities that year described seeing “shelves packed with stuff” and “row after row of containers filled with mystery medications and equipment — including that one item everyone’s been talking about lately, ventilators.”

The federal government had more than 16,000 ventilators in stock — more than it ended up distributing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

China travel repeats

Pence repeated a false talking point of Trump’s, saying the president “suspended all travel from China” to combat the coronavirus.

As written before, the travel restrictions, which went into effect on Feb. 2, were not a total ban as they included exceptions for U.S. citizens, permanent residents and the immediate family members of both. Others who had traveled to China within the prior two weeks were prohibited from entering the U.S.

A New York Times story on April 4 found that nearly 40,000 people had flown on direct flights from China to the United States in the two months after the travel restrictions went into effect.

Pence also claimed that Biden opposed the restrictions and called them “xenophobic.” Biden’s campaign said on April 3 that the former vice president supported the travel restrictions and that his “xenophobic” comment was in reference to Trump’s “long record of scapegoating others,” not the travel restrictions. Biden referred to Trump’s “record of hysteria and xenophobia” on the same day those travel prohibitions were announced.

This report was excerpted from an analysis published on FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.