White House defends Trump's claim that 99 percent of COVID-19 cases are 'harmless' with chart showing 5 percent are fatal

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany came to her press briefing on Monday prepared to defend President Trump’s claim over the weekend that “99 percent” of U.S. coronavirus cases are “totally harmless” with two charts illustrating the country’s COVID-19 death rate.

But McEnany’s slides showed a case fatality rate — the percentage of confirmed cases that result in death — of 4.6 percent, not the 1 percent implied by Trump.

During a July 4 “Salute to America” speech on the South Lawn of the White House, Trump boasted that the administration has conducted more than 40 million coronavirus tests.

“But by so doing, we show cases, 99 percent of which are totally harmless,” Trump added.

Asked about the remark during Monday’s briefing, McEnany said the president was merely pointing to “a factual statement, one that is rooted in science,” before calling for the charts to be displayed.

The first showed the U.S. case fatality rate, or CFR, dipping to 4.6 percent after topping 6 percent in May; the second compared it to those of European countries — like France, Italy and the United Kingdom — where the rate is upwards of 10 percent. Both charts cited the European CDC as their source, and both showed the U.S. death rate from the coronavirus more than four times the rate Trump’s remark suggested.

“What that speaks to is the great work of this administration,” McEnany said. “And that’s what the president was pointing out.”

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany speaks during a press briefing at the White House on Monday. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany during a press briefing at the White House on Monday. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Even though a substantial number of coronavirus infections do not cause illness — the exact number is uncertain — COVID-19 isn’t “harmless” to many people who contract it, even if they survive. The acute phase can be debilitating, and a growing number of reports indicate the potential for long-term damage to the lungs, other organs and circulatory system.

McEnany wasn’t the only member of the White House who appeared to struggle to defend Trump’s false claim. Dr. Stephen Hahn, the FDA commissioner and White House coronavirus task force member, repeatedly dodged questions about the remark in television interviews on Sunday.

After McEnany’s display, NBC’s Peter Alexander asked the press secretary to clarify whether Trump was using “harmless” as a synonym for nonfatal.

“The president was noting the fact that the vast majority of Americans who contract coronavirus will come out on the other side of this,” McEnany replied. “Of course he takes this very seriously. Of course no one wants to see anyone in this country contract COVID, which is why the administration has fought hard to make sure that’s not the case with our historic response effort.”

According to Johns Hopkins University, there have been more than 2.9 million confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States and over 130,000 deaths.

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