The health community was, understandably, up in arms about Trump’s comments, with many questioning why Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984— and a consistent voice of reason in the room at Trump’s coronavirus task force meetings—wasn’t present. Without Fauci’s tempering presence at the podium, Trump’s falsehoods about the spread of COVID-19 seem even more blatant. At times, it resembled a MAGA campaign rally, a raucous, self-congratulatory setting (complete with a tone-deaf shunning of social distancing rules) that the president increasingly seems to miss.
“It is head-spinning,” Lawrence Gostin, a professor at Georgetown Law and the director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law, told The Hill, adding, “The public must be thoroughly confused because one day we are hearing health officials say this is very serious and we must take aggressive measures. Then the next day, the president will undermine that message either by saying it is under control or that, because of the economy, we have to get people back to work.”
Just to clarify: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projections estimate that as many as 214 million people in the United States could be infected with COVID-19 over the course of the epidemic. That constitutes an unprecedented public health emergency that can’t be solved with bluster, no matter how hard Trump tries.
On Tuesday morning, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose own fact-filled and measured briefings have become essential television viewing for many New Yorkers, delivered a message that directly contradicted the one from the president the day before. Saying that the rate of infections in New York was now doubling every three days, Cuomo suggested that any optimism was clearly misplaced. “We’re not slowing it, and it is accelerating on its own,” said Cuomo at a briefing at Manhattan’s Javits Center, which is being converted to a 2,000-bed hospital complex. “The [disease] forecaster said to me, ‘We were looking at a freight train coming across the country.” Added Cuomo: “We’re now looking at a bullet train.”
It may feel counterintuitive not to listen to the president, but right now, Americans are better off taking their advice on how to limit the effect of COVID-19 directly from Fauci, who echoes the CDC’s advice to “essentially self-isolate.” It’s unclear even to experts how long COVID-19 will continue to ravage the U.S., but it depends at least in part on how willing Americans are to suspend normal life and flatten the curve in order to protect our most vulnerable populations.
In a Saturday column for the Washington Post, Margaret Sullivan noted that Trump’s daily COVID-19 briefings have become made-for-TV events at which “Trump is doing harm and spreading misinformation while working for his own partisan political benefit.” Sullivan called on cable news networks and other news organizations to stop airing the briefings live, and the proposition makes sense; in a time of unprecedented turmoil, when Americans are grappling with disease, job loss and social isolation, maybe no news is better than fake news.