Public health experts have noted the WHO’s estimate may change as more is learned about the spread of the virus; thousands of non-fatal cases likely have gone undetected. But while the death rate may dip below 3.4 percent, everything that’s known so far suggests it won’t plummet to a level that’s not alarming. And it’s already hitting some populations, like the elderly, disproportionately hard.
But the president’s subsequent explanation could prove dangerous, as it contradicts officials’ attempts to keep infected people away from others.
“Because a lot people will have this and it’s very mild,” Trump went on, elaborating on why he thought the WHO had it wrong. “They’ll get better very rapidly. They don’t even see a doctor. They don’t even call a doctor.”
“You never hear about those people. So you can’t put them down in the category of the overall population in terms of this corona flu and — or virus. So you just can’t do that,” he said. “So if, you know, we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better, just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work — some of them go to work but they get better.”
On Thursday morning, Trump denied suggesting on “Hannity” that sick people should go to work. “I NEVER said people that are feeling sick should go to work. This is just more Fake News and disinformation put out by the Democrats,” he tweeted.
But his statement televised on Fox nevertheless undermines what doctors and other health experts are trying to explain to the public: Even people with mild symptoms should stay home and “self-isolate” because they can spread the virus to others — some of whom will get deathly ill, or pass it on to yet more people, spreading disease.
The president’s departure from U.S. public health officials’ careful statements is only the most vivid example of the contradictory messaging coming from his administration on the coronavirus outbreak. And it complicates an already difficult high wire act for the health experts, who want to prepare Americans without panicking them.
White House officials have been all over the place: blunt talk about the outbreak’s seriousness one moment, understated comparisons to a seasonal flu the next. The president has accused Democrats and the media of hyping the virus — one that’s killed thousands worldwide — to hurt his reelection prospects, calling the criticism “their new hoax.” And he’s repeatedly hinted that a vaccine is coming soon, despite being told directly and repeatedly that in the most optimistic scenario it’s at least a year away.
The mixed messaging, experts say, creates a communications nightmare for health officials. If people don’t take coronavirus seriously or are mistakenly led to believe a vaccine is just a couple of months away, they’re less likely to protect themselves. That in turn puts others at risk.
“In emergencies like this, one of the things that’s really important is that you base decisions on science,” said Tom Frieden, who led the response to Ebola in 2014 as CDC director under President Barack Obama. “Be candid, be accurate. People are scared. The markets are crashing. It’s an unprecedented epidemic, a pandemic, actually.”
Obama himself weighed in on Twitter with a measured message Wednesday. “Protect yourself and your community from coronavirus with common sense precautions: wash your hands, stay home when sick and listen @CDCgov and local health authorities. Save the masks for health care workers. Let’s stay calm, listen to the experts, and follow the science.”
Trump administration officials say they’re following the science on coronavirus and are holding now-daily briefings with the agency heads leading the outbreak response. They forcefully shot down reports that the NIH’s top infectious disease expert, Tony Fauci, was being muzzled after Vice President Mike Pence took charge of the federal government’s response last week.
But science doesn’t always come first in this administration, which worries that markets tanking over coronavirus fears will undermine Trump’s hopes for a second term. The White House makes its displeasure clear when public health experts talk about disruption or use words like pandemic.
“I’m afraid it becomes clear as each day goes by that the president’s initial dismissal of this threat was wishful thinking and not well-founded,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. ”And we need the most competent and best equipped medical experts to be leading the response.”
Scientists who contradict Trump sometimes run into a buzz saw — or in the case of Trump’s false predictions on Hurricane Dorian last fall, pressure to walk back the facts. Trump’s warning that the storm would pummel Alabama sent federal scientists scurrying to quash the misinformation, according to communications released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. After the National Weather Service tweeted a correct forecast, political aides demanded a retraction. That shocked career scientists who were asked to publicly reject clear-cut science, the emails show.
The whole incident “opened our eyes” to political interference in the Trump administration, which made scientists “more nervous” about speaking out, an official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which includes the weather service, told POLITICO. The official asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.
Trump himself has regularly dismissed scientific experts and once boasted to an interviewer he had “a natural instinct for science,” pointing out his uncle was an MIT professor. His own statements suggest otherwise: He’s blamed California wildfires on inadequate raking of forests, claimed noisy windmills cause cancer and enthusiastically described a stealth fighter jet as “invisible.”
Perhaps more alarming to scientists, still, are the ways they say Trump’s administration has distorted or smothered their work, particularly on energy and climate change. For instance, his administration tried to relax car emissions rules using botched data that purported to show that pollution saves lives. It’s also refused to publicize dozens of government-funded studies on how climate change could hurt crops and create new health risks.
Hoping to convey factual information to Americans without antagonizing Trump, public health groups that are often quick to take issue with the president have been relatively mute in challenging him on coronavirus — even when he overpromises on a vaccine or mistakenly claims testing for the virus is running smoothly. In fact, the CDC-developed diagnostic test, the government’s policies on who to test, and the lab capacity for conducting the test, have all fallen short. That’s let the disease spread, without enabling public health agencies to know how far it has spread or where it will hit hardest.
“Politicians ought not to get into the details,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association who was the top state public health official in Maryland during the 2001 anthrax attacks. “They need to set the stage — and then let the experts talk.”
Being able to state the truth — without contradiction, pressure or muzzling — will be crucial, said Aftergood, pointing to Beijing’s early efforts to silence warnings on the virus.
“In China, President Xi [Jinping] learned that imposing restrictions on information is not a good strategy for fighting the coronavirus,” he said. “It made things worse. It made it harder to get a grasp of this emerging threat.”
Some lawmakers — among them prominent Republicans like Senate health committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and influential House appropriator Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) have delivered similar messages, calling for the voices of the experts to rise above the din.
Cole, for instance, came to the defense of CDC’s Nancy Messonnier, who came under attack from administration officials last week after she told reporters that “disruption to everyday life might be severe” as the virus inevitably spreads.
“I’ve heard people jumping on Nancy Messonnier because she told us the truth: that it’s not a matter of if but when,” Cole told reporters. “Isn’t that what you want to hear instead of some pie in the sky?”
Since Messonnier gave that warning, the virus has spread to at least 17 states and 11 people have died, seven of them linked to a single nursing home in Washington state.
Daniel Wolfson, executive vice president of the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation, which has spent the last couple of years convening meetings and issuing reports on the waning public trust in medicine, sees the coronavirus as a test of trust — and whether anything in America right now can be depoliticized.
“Ebola spread in Africa because people didn’t trust the system,” he said, referring to the 2014 outbreak, the worst on record. “Our system is going to be tested by how much we trust it.”
While Trump’s alteration of a hurricane map became a sort of cultural gag dubbed “Sharpiegate,” inaccurate hurricane predictions have real-world impact, shaping decisions about who evacuates and who stays in harm’s way. The corollary in a disease outbreak is not just what words people hear, but how they filter them — whether they absorb medical facts or the myths, falsehoods and conspiracy theories that can deepen the crisis and cause actual harm.
“The initial response may partly be wishful thinking. We want to believe this is going to be a minor blip that will blow over without too many consequences,” said Aftergood. “That’s not a good approach for emergency planners, but it’s an understandable reaction from the general public.”
Frieden said another helpful message from the White House would be to emphasize that “we’re all in this together.”
But he added, “That’s not a message I’ve heard very much from this administration.”
Zack Colman, Brianna Ehley, Debra Kahn, Jason Millman and Quint Forgey contributed to this report.