Trump draws fire for saying he downplayed virus to avoid ‘panic’

President Trump has an explanation for the new revelations that he purposely downplayed the risks of coronavirus: He says he didn’t want to cause panic.

Experts say Trump had another option: He could have calmly, but accurately, explained to Americans the risks associated with the outbreak and what they could do to lessen the danger.

Excerpts released this week from famed journalist Bob Woodward’s upcoming book, “Rage,” have raised questions about whether more lives could have been saved if Trump had, early in the pandemic, shared with Americans all the information about coronavirus he himself had.

The preview of the book released Wednesday included tape of Trump telling Woodward in March: “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

In a separate interview in early February, Trump said: “It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”

That was a stark contrast to Trump’s public statements at the time downplaying the virus and explicitly comparing it to the flu.   

Asked on Wednesday if he had misled the public, Trump replied: “I think if you said ‘in order to reduce panic,’ perhaps that’s so.”

But public health experts say there was a middle ground between inaccurately downplaying the virus and causing panic, that Trump could have taken: accurately presenting information on the risks of the virus, while telling people what the government is doing to fight the threat and what people can do themselves. 

“People are smart and pretty resilient,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “If you tell them what’s going on, you can do it in a way that doesn’t panic them.”

Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, wrote on Twitter that the best way to minimize panic is to “honestly present the reality of the situation and reassure people that you are working to control it and minimize the fallout.”

“Failing to prepare for a real threat is not responsible,” he added. “Playing down a real risk that you *know* is real is not preventing panic. It’s negligence.”

Trump, however, has continued to downplay the threat of the virus at times even months into the pandemic. 

“This thing is going away,” Trump said on “Fox & Friends” last month. 

He is holding rallies in front of large crowds of people, many of them without masks, and rarely wears a mask himself. At one such rally last week, he even mocked his opponent, Joe Biden, for wearing a face covering.

“Did you ever see a man that likes a mask as much as him?” Trump said of Biden, while also saying he is “all for” wearing masks.

On the policy side, too, the Trump administration took heavy fire from experts for issuing new testing guidelines last month that recommended cutting back on testing of asymptomatic people, unless they are a “vulnerable individual” or a local health official recommends it. 

In the early days of the pandemic, even public health experts sometimes made mistakes, for example initially recommending against wearing masks, something that was later shown to be a crucial tool in slowing the spread of the virus.  

But by early April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was recommending that people wear masks, something that Trump continued to resist for months. He was not pictured wearing one until July, and has now returned to not wearing one. 

If Trump had issued warnings about the virus sooner, Benjamin said, “more people would have worn masks, more people would have been social-distanced, more people would have taken the threat more seriously.”

“I have to believe less people would have been sick,” he added.

Trump continues to strike an optimistic tone, in particular by pointing to progress on a vaccine, though it remains unclear exactly when one will be ready. 

“You’ll see very soon, with vaccines and with therapeutics, the job we’ve done has been incredible,” Trump said Wednesday. 

He also points to his early ban on travel from China, at the end of January, while placing blame on the country for allowing the virus to originate and spread there. 

“We shouldn’t have lost anybody,” Trump said. “It came out of China. It went to Europe. It went all over the world.  It should have never happened.”

He added, though, that “we had to show calm.”

Howard Koh, a former assistant secretary for health in the Obama administration, said “confronting the hard facts as unpleasant as they may be” is a key part of public health messaging, along with giving health experts a platform. 

The CDC has not been regularly holding briefings throughout the pandemic, and Trump has at times clashed with Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases expert.

“They should give him a White House platform every day,” Koh said of Fauci, “so that he and other top leaders are allowed to give the consistent, evidence-based guidance to the public that we all need and deserve.”

Tags Anthony Fauci Bob Woodward Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Joe Biden Woodward book

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