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President Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis must prompt a turning point in US response

President Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis must prompt a turning point in US response
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News of President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rages against '60 Minutes' for interview with Krebs Cornyn spox: Neera Tanden has 'no chance' of being confirmed as Biden's OMB pick Pa. lawmaker was informed of positive coronavirus test while meeting with Trump: report MORE and the first lady contracting COVID-19 has rocked the political world. He tweeted early Friday morning, "Tonight, @FLOTUS and I tested positive for COVID-19. We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately. We will get through this TOGETHER!" 

Health care experts think the president's case can be a teachable moment. 

As a physician who has repeatedly witnessed the suffering caused by this disease, I am particularly concerned about the president’s health. Even without knowing details of his medical history, it’s clear his age and obesity place him at high risk for severe illness or even death. 

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I wish him and his wife a speedy recovery, and I hope that the cluster of cases at the White House remains small. 

To some, the president’s infection was unexpected, but many in the medical community are much less surprised. COVID-19 can be spread even by asymptomatic people, making it extremely dangerous. 

Despite the White House’s frequent testing, there were missed opportunities to reduce the risk of transmission of this particular outbreak. Large rallies and events with minimal social distancing, as well as a reluctance to wear a mask, will put even the leader of the free world at grave risk. 

This news is a grim reminder that a viral threat anywhere is a viral threat everywhere. No one is truly safe. And contrary to anyone’s opinion, COVID-19 is not going to disappear anytime soon. In fact, some experts predict that the virus is going to get worse in the colder months before it gets better.

The good news is that there are steps each of us can take to stop this virus. Masks prevent people, including those who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, from spreading COVID-19 to others. Evidence suggests that widespread mask-wearing could reduce COVID-19 deaths by 50 percent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said, "If we could get everybody to wear a mask right now, I think in four, six, eight weeks we could bring this epidemic under control." Social distancing reduces transmission within and between groups by limiting routes of potential exposure; mathematical models indicate that these efforts can dramatically “flatten the curve." Influenza vaccination prevents catching and dying of the flu, but this year the resultant reduction in flu cases will also allow overburdened health care systems to focus on COVID-19 

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This virus does not respect partisan boundaries. More than ever, we need to be united in our response. There is nothing liberal or conservative about following science and acting to limit the transmission of a deadly illness. Similarly, our leaders should not inject politics where they do not belong in public health. Politicians need to stop interfering with research, the drug approval process, or vaccine development; they should not attack or undermine our public health leaders and institutions for partisan gain, nor amplify politically convenient but scientifically dubious recommendations or theories. 

I wish the president and first lady good health. I also hope this event can be a turning point in the American response to the pandemic such that we finally work together to stop the spread of this terrible disease. 

Zahir Kanjee M.D., MPH, is a hospital medicine physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.