WASHINGTON -- Confronted daily with criticism about gaps in the federal response to the coronavirus crisis, President Donald Trump invariably boasts about his Jan. 31 decision to restrict travel from China, where the outbreak began, claiming he saved thousands of American lives.
But Trump has repeatedly overstated the effect of his decision, and the supposed opposition to it, even as he has misrepresented federal efforts to develop a vaccine and supply protective masks, ventilators and other critically needed gear.
"Nobody wanted that to happen," he said Wednesday about the China travel ban. "Everybody thought it was just unnecessary to do it. And if we didn't do that, thousands and thousands of people would have died, more than what's happened."
Speaking at a White House coronavirus briefing, Trump offered himself and his administration unabashed praise. "It's hard not to be happy with the job we're doing, that I can tell you," he said.
With more than 68,000 confirmed cases and more than 1,000 deaths as of Thursday, Trump's decision two months ago to restrict all foreign travelers from China, and to quarantine Americans returning from China for two weeks, had a short-lived impact at best, experts say.
"To the degree that it bought us time, we did not take advantage of that time," said Jeffrey Levi, a public health expert at George Washington University, who said the coronavirus had already spread to other countries when Trump imposed the ban.
Levi said the administration should have begun widespread testing, improved medical surveillance systems, begun preparing hospitals and ordered emergency production of masks and ventilators "so we wouldn't be in the difficult position we're in today."
Chris Beyrer, a professor of epidemiology and international health at Johns Hopkins University, said Trump issued his order too late to make a difference because coronavirus infections were already reported in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Toronto, as well as 26 other countries.
Any gains from the travel ban were lost in "the crucial early days and weeks of spread by our lack of testing, limited contact tracing, and failure to impose rapid travel and movement restrictions where cases were identified to limit clusters," he said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the public face of the administration's public health response, has praised Trump's decision on China but said it wasn't enough to halt "the tsunami" of infections.