White House dismissal of COVID-19 concerns draws criticism
The White House has flouted public health advice on the coronavirus, drawing harsh criticisms from experts who fear the administration is sending the wrong message.
Even as cases surge in Oklahoma, President Trump is moving forward with an indoor rally in Tulsa on Saturday, despite guidelines against holding such large gatherings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Trump and Vice President Pence have mostly brushed off the rising numbers of cases in states across the country, largely attributing them to increased testing.
In a Gray TV interview earlier this week, Trump said the number of cases in Oklahoma was “very minuscule,” and the virus was “dying out.”
In fact, Oklahoma has reported more than 1,100 new cases in just the past four days, with record high numbers twice in a week.
Experts fear Trump’s dismissal of rising case numbers and the dangers of large gatherings gives the public the message that the virus is no longer a threat, and puts the country at risk of prolonging the crisis.
“The consistent theme has been inconsistent messaging,” said Howard Koh, former assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services under President Obama.
“It just leads to public doubt and confusion, which weakens the chances of a coordinated national response,” added Koh, who now teaches at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Trump and Pence have signaled a desire to reopen the country, and cheered governors for moving quickly despite states not meeting the CDC guidelines for reopening.
In comments this week, both have signaled a desire to declare victory over the virus, and paint a picture of life returning to normal.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump said he chose Oklahoma as the spot for his rally because of how well officials have responded to the virus.
“It’s like, very few people. And I think they’re in great shape. But I would even say the spike ends, has already ended,” Trump said.
Oklahoma had one of the lower infection rates earlier this spring, when the virus was ravaging states in the Northeast and West Coast. Yet ever since Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) began widely reopening business in April, the state has been reporting record-high daily case numbers.
Experts fear the rally has the makings of a “super spreader” event, with tens of thousands of people standing shoulder to shoulder indoors, shouting and chanting.
The Trump campaign has said that each attendee will receive a temperature check and be offered hand sanitizer and a mask at the door to the arena, though there is no requirement to wear a mask.
Updated CDC guidelines released last week urged the organizers of large gatherings to require the use of face coverings among staff, and to “strongly encourage” masks among attendees.
Amesh Adjala, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, said the administration’s efforts to portray everything as normal “make it very hard for someone who’s not an expert to understand what actually is the truth.”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany this week dismissed health concerns about the rally and said anyone attending will assume a “personal risk.” On Friday, she said she will not wear a mask.
“It’s a personal decision,” McEnany said. “I am tested regularly, I feel that it is safe for me not to be wearing a mask.”
Increasing evidence shows the effectiveness of masks at reducing the spread of the coronavirus, but they have been turned into a political flashpoint and part of a larger culture war.
Even when the CDC and top public health officials like Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s leading expert on infectious diseases, urge people to wear masks and avoid crowded, indoor events, that message gets blurred when it becomes political, Adjala said.
Cameron Wolfe, an infectious disease expert and professor of medicine at Duke University, said important public health messaging can be undercut by just one or two prominent individuals who are in opposition to it.
Wearing a mask and practicing physical distancing is “such an easy visual message, and yet when that is not demonstrated by people in either public health or political leadership positions, that just takes the wind out of the sails of folks in public health who are otherwise struggling to send that message,” Wolfe said.
In the West Wing, masks are no longer required, just a month after the administration first put the policy in place after two White House staffers tested positive for COVID-19. Officials also routinely ignore physical distancing recommendations during public appearances.
Last week, Pence, tweeted — then deleted — a photo of himself greeting dozens of Trump 2020 campaign staffers, all of whom were standing next to each other, inside, and not wearing masks.
When President Trump signed an executive order on policing this week, law enforcement guests were standing next to him on all sides, not wearing masks.
Pence also regularly visits restaurants when traveling, highlighting local businesses in newly reopened states. He does not usually wear a mask during these stops, even though he’s indoors.
But the messaging on public health from Trump and Pence is often at odds with lawmakers in their own party.
Masks have become the norm in the House and Senate, even among GOP members. Only a small, but vocal, minority of House Republicans have consistently refused to wear them.
In the Senate, a recent GOP press conference on police reform featured everyone in masks.
And Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) on Friday said in an interview on CBS that he will wear a mask at Trump’s rally.