President Trump’s relentless downplaying of the coronavirus pandemic is under increased scrutiny as COVID-19 case numbers rise, and public health experts and Democrats are saying he is making it worse by effectively denying that the growing outbreaks are a problem.
The U.S. is expected to see a new high of 60,000 new COVID-19 cases a day this week, far above the peak when New York was the epicenter of the outbreak in April. Now there are four epicenters in the U.S. where hospitals are quickly becoming overwhelmed.
Outbreaks are growing in Arizona, Texas, Florida and California, which experts say are the new epicenters of the epidemic in the U.S. There is no end to these surges in sight and cases are increasing in 40 states, compared to just 10 a few months ago.
Yet Trump over the weekend claimed that COVID-19 is “totally harmless” to 99 percent of people who get the disease and he continued to tie surging outbreaks to increased testing, both claims that experts say is false and could negatively influence people’s behaviors during the pandemic.
“He is facilitating the virus. He is enabling the virus by statements like that and you’re seeing the infection rate go up, and you’re seeing the economy suffer, and he is part of that current debacle that we are in,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Monday.
He drew a direct line between Trump’s public remarks and actions by residents that have allowed the disease to spread.
“What he said to the American people is there’s no problem. And then they don’t wear a mask, and they don’t socially distance, and they don’t take any precautionary behavior, and then the virus goes like this,” he added, using his hand to mimic the rise of cases in the U.S.
Trump’s comments could provide a false sense of security and undermine the response to the worsening COVID-19 crisis as some people refuse to practice social distancing or wear masks in public, experts say.
“It’s very harmful to have a lack of clear communication and to underplay this virus,” said Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. “Ultimately, a large part of how well we control the virus is going to depend on people’s behavior and to the extent that you have leaders who are trusted by large segments of our population saying it’s not a big deal, that it’s all about testing, or that most people do fine and for 99 percent of people it’s harmless it does two things: it says there isn’t an outbreak out there or not much of one, and second is even if you got infected it’d be no big deal at all. We know both of those are not true.”
Polls show a majority of voters disapprove of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, and that this is eating away at his support with the presidential election just four months away.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden seized on Trump’s remark that 99 percent of COVID-19 cases are “totally harmless,” a claim that was later backed up by Mark Meadows, the president’s chief of staff.
“It’s a tragic commentary on the rotten values and dangerousness of this administration that listening to the president and his top staffer could literally compromise even more American lives than their malpractice has already taken. And 1 percent of America is 3.2 million people,” Biden campaign spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, recently told Congress the U.S. could see 100,000 new COVID-19 cases a day if the trajectory of the outbreak isn’t turned. So far, 2.9 million cases have been confirmed in the U.S., making up about 25 percent of the global total.
The virus is now spreading widely and local leaders say it’s hard to get people to wear masks or practice social distancing when the president appears to be contradicting their messages.
“One of the biggest problems we have in terms of getting communities to do these behaviors that are necessary to coexist with the virus, one of the biggest challenges we have is the messages coming out of Washington that would suggest that masks don’t work or that it’s not necessary or the virus is going away on its own,” Austin, Texas, Mayor Steve Adler said to the press on Monday.
“If a significant part of your community doesn’t think this is real or something they have to worry about, that group of people will for the entire city make it more difficult to open up the economy. That group of people will make it more dangerous for seniors and susceptible people. That confused message divides a community and prevents a community from getting the critical mass that’s necessary to deal with the virus,” he said.
Trump, as recently as the Fourth of July, has tied increased case counts to increased testing. While testing is increasing, so is the percentage of tests coming back positive, an indicator of growing outbreaks.
This fact was acknowledged by Trump’s COVID-19 testing czar during a congressional hearing last week, but is being contradicted by Trump and his chief of staff, sending mixed messages to the public.
“Public health folks like me, other political leaders, governors, mayors are having to go up against the president or against other political leaders, and it just creates confusion and makes it hard for people to know whom to trust,” Jha said.
Emerging research increasingly shows the spread of COVID-19 can be slowed significantly if communities wear masks in public, especially when they can’t stay at least 6 feet from others.
Trump has never worn a mask in public, has made fun of his political opponents for doing so and has also resisted calls to instate a federal masking requirement. Just last week he said he thinks the virus will just “disappear” someday.
Trump has continued to hold large gatherings where social distancing and mask wearing is not enforced against the advice of public health experts, including a Fourth of July celebration in South Dakota. He is scheduled to hold a campaign rally this weekend in New Hampshire.
“How do you tell somebody they have to wear a mask and be socially distanced when the president doesn’t and hosts a rally where they’re almost celebrating the lack of those simple countermeasures?” Miami Mayor Dan Gelber said on CNN, this Sunday.
Polls make it evident whether or not to wear a mask has become a partisan issue.
Recent poll from the Pew Research Center showed 65 percent of adults wore a mask all or most of the time when in stores or other businesses, including 76 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of Republicans.
The White House has not given any signal that it might change its approach to the coronavirus, and on Monday officials offered a vigorous defense of President Trump’s 99 percent remark.
“What the president was pointing to … was a factual statement,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said during a briefing Monday. “One that is rooted in science and one that was pointing out the fact that mortality in this country was very low.”
And while experts differ on what the true fatality rate of COVID-19 rate is, it’s most likely around 1 percent or less. However, people who survive COVID-19 can still experience serious illness requiring hospitalization, and those needing ventilation could see long-term health effects, including reduced lung capacity. Some experience prolonged illness that lasts for several weeks.
It’s unknown what the long-term health effects are of COVID-19 infection since it’s a new disease. But Jha said his best guess is that 10 to 20 percent of people who get it will end up having “meaningful, long-term effects” from the virus.