Fact check: Claim of double standards between COVID-19, swine flu responses is inaccurate

Chelsey Cox

The claim: There is a double standard in the response to H1N1 vs. COVID-19

A claim in the form of a meme about allegedly uneven responses to the H1N1 swine flu pandemic of 2009 and the COVID-19 pandemic was shared nearly 5,000 times on Facebook. 

The claim contains case statistics of each disease within the USA, an arbitrary "panic level," who was blamed for the pandemic and the federal government's response beneath images of Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

"Fact Check That, Facebook!" the meme says at the top.

No one panicked when U.S. cases of the swine flu reached 60.8 million, then 4.7 million cases of COVID-19 were met with "hysteria," according to the claim.

The meme says the public blamed China for H1N1, and Trump received the blame for the spread of COVID-19.

The response to H1N1? "None," according to the claim. COVID-19 led to a "lockdown."

USA TODAY was unable to reach the meme's poster for comment.

Fact check: What's true and what's false about coronavirus?

What's right and what's wrong?

The meme correctly observes that about 60.8 million cases of H1N1 affected the USA from April 12, 2009, to April 10, 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The claim inaccurately compares a year's worth of data to COVID-19 statistics, which encompass no more than eight months. The novel coronavirus reached the USA near the end of January, according to USA TODAY. A chart by Our World in Data reports 6.25 million cases of COVID-19 as of Sept. 6. The number rose past 6.93 million cases on Sept. 24, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center.

There were more than 7 million cases in the USA, as of Sunday afternoon, according to Johns Hopkins University's COVID-19 Dashboard. The CDC predicts 150,000 to 340,000 new cases will be reported by Oct. 3.

More:Fact check: COVID-19 is deadlier than the 1918 Spanish flu and seasonal influenza

Older versions of the claim make the same errors. Fact check site Lead Stories posted an image of a meme comparing H1N1 with COVID-19 case statistics from March. Another from March downplayed the number of COVID-19 cases that month. The meme was removed from Facebook, but Lead Stories posted a screenshot.

The assertion that there was no panic during the swine flu pandemic is inaccurate. In April 2019, Reuters reported that coverage of the pandemic dominated Twitter and Facebook. An analysis of the correlation between mass media coverage of the pandemic and the hysteria surrounding the virus was published in a research journal.

What was the federal government's response to H1N1 vs. COVID-19?

H1N1 was first detected in California on April 15, 2009, and quickly spread globally, according to the CDC. The first infections of the novel virus were reported to the World Health Organization on April 18, three days after the first human infection.

The U.S. government declared H1N1 a public health emergency eight days later, on April 26. The WHO raised its influenza pandemic alert from phase 3 to phase 5 from April 27-29, signaling an imminent pandemic. During its spring phase, 980 U.S. schools were dismissed, the CDC reported. 

Patients receive nasal spray vaccine for the H1N1 virus during a clinic held by Montgomery County Health and Human Services in Maryland on Oct. 9, 2009

Fact check: 2009 swine flu spread rapidly, but COVID-19 is more deadly

A vaccine for the swine flu became available about five months after the first confirmed U.S. case, according to USA TODAY. Access to the vaccine opened to the general public in late December 2009. The WHO announced the end of the pandemic Aug. 11, 2010, 14 months after the first U.S. case. The national death toll reached 12,469.

COVID-19 is far deadlier. The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center reported more than 204,000 Americans have died as of Sunday. 

The first U.S. case of the coronavirus was confirmed Jan. 21, according to USA TODAY. At the time, the WHO found no evidence of person-to-person transmission of the disease outside China. The virus wasn't classified as a global health emergency until Jan. 30, the same day of the first confirmed person-to-person transmission in the USA. 

The Trump administration declared a public health emergency on Jan. 31. Mandatory quarantines of individuals traveling from China to the USA soon followed.

The U.S. surpassed 200,000 deaths from the coronavirus on Tuesday.

The first confirmed death of an American from COVID-19 occurred in early February. Experts said that because of limited testing, the virus may have spread undetected in the USA before January. On Feb. 26, the White House announced the formation of the Coronavirus Task Force, led by Vice President Mike Pence.

On March 6, Trump publicly said anyone could get a coronavirus test. Before early March, the CDC limited testing to individuals with certain symptoms and a known travel history.

On March 12, the day after the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, testified before Congress about the "testing logjam" and called the lack of a rigorous testing system a "failing." 

Trump declared a national emergency the next day, which allowed Health and Human Services to waive or modify laws under certain health care programs to expand testing, USA TODAY reported.

The first social distancing guidelines were released March 16, nearly two months after the first case of COVID-19 was detected in the USA. The nation surpassed 10,000 cases three days later, on March. 19. Seven days later, the USA led the world in cases, according to The New York Times.

On March 29, the federal government extended social distancing guidelines to April 30, days after Trump said he wanted to "reopen" the country by Easter.

"The peak in death rate is likely to hit in two weeks. Nothing would be worse than declaring victory before the victory is won,” Trump said, according to USA TODAY. 

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases surpassed 1 million by April 30 and reached nearly 4 million Aug. 8, according to a chart by Our World in Data.

A vaccine against H1N1 was available five months after the first detected case; a novel coronavirus vaccine is still in development, USA TODAY reported.

Progress on the vaccine is moving faster than ever before in infectious disease history, in part because of a White House initiative called Operation Warp SpeedCNET reported.

Australian vaccine development expert Ian Frazer cautioned against rushing the process when he told told ABC News that developing safe vaccines for coronaviruses is difficult.

"I think it would be fair to say even if we get something which looked quite encouraging in animals, the safety trials in humans will have to be fairly extensive before we would think about vaccinating a group of people who have not yet been exposed to the virus," Frazer said.

Fauci told CNN that Americans are unlikely to safely resume life without masks and social distancing requirements until several months after a vaccine arrives.

"It's going to take months to get enough people vaccinated to have an umbrella of immunity over the community so that you don't have to worry about easy transmission. And that's what I mean, it's not going to be an overnight event where you have a vaccine and then all of a sudden, everything is OK," Fauci told CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

Our rating: Partly false

We rate this claim PARTLY FALSE based on our research. The claim accurately states the number of H1N1 cases from 2009 to 2010. Assertions about an uneven response between the 2009 pandemic and the COVID-19 pandemic are inaccurate. Though the reaction has been more intense for COVID-19, swine flu also triggered a public health emergency and pandemic response, closed some schools and dominated the news.

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