The federal government’s response to the novel coronavirus outbreak represents a critical test for President Donald Trump and his administration, but some analysts say it’s one that has already been marred by a series of mixed messages from the president himself.
During a White House briefing with the coronavirus task force on Tuesday, Trump insisted that he “always viewed [the outbreak] as very serious.”
“I’ve felt it was a pandemic before it was called a pandemic,” he said. “All you had to do was look at other countries.”
Critics, meanwhile, point to several occasions in which Trump either downplayed the threat of the virus or overstated the government’s capacity to mitigate the crisis, leaving some Americans confused at a critical time.
According to John Cohen, former Acting Undersecretary for Intelligence at the Department of Homeland Security, who is now an ABC News contributor, clear and accurate information from the government in times of crisis is necessary to ensure public safety.
“The danger in providing inaccurate or politically-motivated information in a pandemic,” Cohen said, “is that people will either panic because they don’t have confidence that the government is protecting them, or people will disregard the crisis altogether and fail to take the safeguards to protect themselves, their family and their communities.”
“We’ve already seen that,” Cohen added, “with COVID-19.”
Experts: Access to testing has been limited
In early March, Trump initially claimed that testing is “going very smooth,” that “anybody that needs a test can get one,” and that the tests “perfect” and “beautiful,” in separate trips to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to Capitol Hill.
That same week, however, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar walked back those claims to White House reporters.
“You may not get a test unless a doctor or public health official prescribes a test,” he said, adding “that is our medical system in the United States.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease at the National Institute of Health, one of the nation’s top public health experts, was more frank in his assessment, calling the country’s testing capacity “a failing.”
“The system is not really geared to what we need right now — what you are asking for. This is a failing. It is a failing. Let’s admit it,” Fauci said when he testified before Congress last week. “The idea of anybody getting it easily the way people in other countries are doing it, we’re not set up for that. Do I think we should be? Yes. But we’re not.”
Trump appeared to sharpen his tone on Friday, when he declared a national emergency, though he suddenly claimed that widespread testing was “unnecessary.”
“We don’t want everybody taking this test,” Trump said. “It’s totally unnecessary. And this will pass.”
On Monday, however, the World Health Organization delivered a simple message to all countries.
“Test every suspected COVID-19 case,” W.H.O. Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “If they test positive, isolate them and find out who they have been in close contact with up to two days before they developed symptoms and test those people too.”
Adm. Brett Giroir, the Department of Health and Human Services’ assistant secretary of health, reported nearly 60,000 tests had been conducted in the United States as of Tuesday.
In South Korea, meanwhile, which had its first reported case on Jan. 20 — the same day as the U.S. — has since demonstrated the capacity to conduct at least 10,000 tests per day.
Experts: Even with limited testing, case numbers are growing
Trump has repeatedly claimed that the virus is being contained, even predicting that it will disappear one day “like a miracle.”
Last month, as the number of Americans infected with the virus grew to 60, Trump told the public that the number of coronavirus cases in the country was dwindling near zero.
“We’re going very substantially down, not up. Going very substantially down. Schools should be preparing. Get ready just in case. The words are ‘Just in case.’ We don’t think we’ll be there. We don’t think we’ll be anywhere close.” Trump said during a news conference on Feb. 26. “When you have 15 people and the 15 within a couple days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”
In the three weeks since, the virus has infected at least 10,000 people across all 50 U.S. states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.
Fauci again delivered a more sobering assessment when he testified before the Congress last week: “Bottom line, it’s going to get worse.”
According to Tom Bossert, a former homeland security adviser to President Trump who is now an ABC News contributor, “success will look like we overreacted.”
“For public officials in a crisis, you tell people everything you know and everything you do not know. Acknowledge uncertainty. Don’t over-promise or over-reassure,” Bossert said. “Admit when you could have done better, and most importantly for leaders, explain to people what the future will hold.”
Experts: Coronavirus is likely more lethal than the the flu
Trump has made several comparisons to the flu since the coronavirus arrived in the United States.
On March 3, World Health Organization Director Dr. Ghebreyesus made an alarming announcement.
“Globally, about 3.4 percent of reported COVID-19 cases have died,” he said. “By comparison, seasonal flu generally kills far fewer than one percent of those infected.”
But in a phone call with Sean Hannity on March 4, Trump said he had a “hunch” that the World Health Organization’s estimated 3.4 percent death rate for those infected with coronavirus was a “false number.”
On March 9, the president tweeted: “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on… Think about that!”
While death rates for diseases can vary over time and are different for each country, Dr. Fauci also told Congress that coronavirus is likely “ten times more lethal than the seasonal flu,” which averages a 0.1 percent fatality rate.
COVID-19, meanwhile, has already infected at least 214,890 people globally and killed at least 8,730, according to data compiled by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.
“The mixed messaging can actually lead to a more dangerous situation,” Cohen said, “because if people aren’t doing their part to control the spread of this virus, those who are most vulnerable to becoming extraordinarily ill may get exposed.”
Experts: A vaccine is at least a year away
At a White House roundtable in the first week of March, Trump predicted the speedy arrival of a coronavirus vaccine.
“I’ve heard very quick numbers,” Trump said. “That of months.”
He doubled down on the claim last week, saying the vaccine is coming “relatively soon.”
But according to public health experts, a coronavirus vaccine will likely take around 18 months to develop, produce and distribute.
On Monday, Fauci announced that clinical trials for the vaccine had started in “record time,” but he cautioned they still have to monitor those participants for a year to ensure it’s safe.
“The process of developing a vaccine is one that is not that quick,” Fauci told Congress last week. “A year to a year and a half — that is the time frame. Anyone who thinks we can go quicker than that, I think, is cutting corners.”
As Americans brace for an extended period of uncertainty, Trump said, “Just stay calm. It will go away.”
ABC’s Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton, however, said leaders, like doctors, need to adopt a bedside manner.
“The most important thing is not to be dismissive or insulting and say, ‘Calm down. Don’t panic.’ That is the last thing you say to a patient who is worried,” Ashton said. “What you say is, I understand how you’re feeling. I’m telling you that these are the steps that we’re taking right now, and I will help you through this.”
Experts say: Warm weather won’t ‘miraculously’ end the crisis
President Trump has also suggested that coronavirus cases will drop as the weather warms up, similar to the flu every spring.
“There’s a theory that, in April, when it gets warm, historically, that has been able to kill the virus,” Trump said at a White House meeting in February.
He later repeated the claim at a campaign rally in South Carolina, saying “when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.”
Trump, at the same rally on Feb. 28, also said that Democrats were “politicizing” his response to the coronavirus, just as he said they had the Russia investigation and impeachment inquiry.
“They tried anything, they tried it over and over,” he added. “And this is their new hoax.”
Dr. Fauci, meanwhile, told Congress that much about the virus remains unknown.
“We do not know what this virus is going to do,” he said. “You would hope that when we get to warmer weather, it would go down, but we can’t operate under that assumption.”
The Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization’ Polio and Emergencies Cluster Dr. Bruce Aylward isn’t counting on warmer weather to stop the spread of the global outbreak.
“I would not be betting on Mother Nature here,” he said. “I would be betting on case-finding.”
ABC’s Dr. Ashton stressed that the public needs reliable information in order to make informed decisions.
“We don’t have a crystal ball here,” Ashton said. “I always say, in medicine and science, we have to go based on fact, not fear, and evidence, not emotion.”
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