Trump’s COVID-19 case draws new attention to handling of pandemic

President Trump has repeatedly downplayed the risks of the coronavirus and mocked his opponent, Joe Biden, for wearing a mask. Now, Trump himself has the virus and has been flown to Walter Reed Medical Center for treatment. 

Concerns are now mounting about the president’s health, though the White House said Friday he was hospitalized “out of an abundance of caution.”

Trump walked on his own power to and from the helicopter Marine One that took him to the hospital. The president, looking a bit pale, also tweeted a video from the White House in which he said he thought things were going well. 

It remains unclear exactly how serious Trump’s case of the virus is, though he is in a high-risk group given his age and weight. 

The virus has left nearly 210,000 people in the country dead, and Trump’s handling of the pandemic is the defining issue of the presidential contest to be decided just one month from now. 

Trump’s positive test comes weeks after audio recordings were released in which Trump acknowledged that he purposely downplayed the risks of the virus to the public, saying he wanted to prevent a panic. 

“I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic,” Trump told journalist Bob Woodward in March, a quote that was revealed in September when Woodward published his book. 

Trump continued to brush aside concerns about the spread of the virus even in the hours before he tested positive for it.

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told reporters on Friday that they learned top aide Hope Hicks, who traveled with Trump earlier in the week, had tested positive for COVID-19 just as the president was preparing to leave for a fundraiser in New Jersey on Thursday.

Some aides who were planning to travel were kept in Washington, D.C., Meadows said. But the trip went on as planned, and Trump likely exposed donors in the Garden State despite knowing the risk. The president tested positive roughly 12 hours later.

Those decisions triggered more criticisms of Trump and the White House, even as political figures from both parties said they were praying for his health. 

White House doctor Sean Conley said at a press briefing Saturday that the president is “doing very well,” and that while he had a fever, he has been fever-free for over 24 hours. He did not give a date when Trump is expected to be released from the hospital.

The White House also said he has been given the antiviral drug remdesivir and an experimental antibody cocktail made by Regeneron. Conley also did not give a clear answer on whether Trump had been given oxygen, repeatedly saying he was not currently on oxygen. 

White House staff, and Trump in particular, have for months generally ignored guidelines issued by the administration’s own public health experts to slow the spread of the virus. Trump has only worn a mask on a few occasions, such as when he visited Walter Reed hospital or a medical research facility in North Carolina, and a West Wing policy requiring staff to wear masks when unable to socially distance lasted for all of five weeks.

Few wore masks at a White House event a week ago where Trump announced his pick of Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court. Several people who attended that event have now tested positive. 

At Tuesday night’s debate, Trump mocked Biden, the Democratic nominee, over wearing a mask, while saying he himself wears one “when needed.”

“I don’t wear masks like him,” Trump said. “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away from me, and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first recommended people wear masks to slow the spread of the virus in early April, but it was not until July, months later, that Trump first wore a mask in public, and even then he shortly returned to not wearing one and has held campaign rallies with crowds of hundreds of largely mask-less supporters. 

Trump’s diagnosis could serve as a wake-up call for people who are underestimating the dangers of the virus.

“I hope the president and his family do well,” said Eric Toner, a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “It does show that taking precautions is necessary, even for the president.”

“No one wants to see the president or anyone get sick, but if this helps convince some COVID-deniers that it’s in fact real, it would be a silver lining,” he added.  

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) called Trump’s announcement “one of the most astonishing moments in U.S. history.”

“If the most powerful man on earth can get this germ, anyone can,” he tweeted. “Wear a damn mask. Treat this illness more seriously than this [government] has treated it.”

Trump’s handling of the virus will remain a matter of discussion for the next four weeks.

Trump and his allies have defended their response, pointing to travel restrictions that they say saved millions of lives. They have also pointed to efforts to produce and then deliver equipment and protective gear to states as being a highlight of the response.

Yet the Trump administration’s response has drawn widespread criticism from public health experts, as shortages of testing supplies and protective equipment for health workers persisted for months, while Trump pushed back on restrictions on businesses meant to slow the spread, tweeting a call to “LIBERATE” states. The supply situation has improved to some degree, but experts say the administration could still be doing more to ramp up widespread rapid testing.

Trump has also publicly contradicted the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, as well as other experts, leading to confused messaging. When Redfield stressed the importance of a mask, saying it is more guaranteed to work 100 percent of the time than even a vaccine, Trump told reporters later that day that he disagreed with Redfield, who he effectively criticized publicly at a press briefing.

Trump has accused the Food and Drug Administration of harboring a “deep state,” raising concerns about political pressure to approve a vaccine before it is ready. He has elevated as a top adviser Scott Atlas, a doctor with no background in infectious diseases who has been publicly repudiated by colleagues at Stanford University for downplaying the risks of the virus and the importance of measures like mask-wearing. 

The White House has remained extremely secretive about the spread of the virus within its own walls prior to Trump’s diagnosis.

The White House did not disclose that national security adviser Robert O’Brien tested positive until it was reported in the media; it did not reveal that Vice President Pence’s communications director had tested positive until Trump identified her; and it did not confirm that Hicks, who is in close proximity to Trump daily, had tested positive even after it had been widely reported.

One person familiar with the matter said there have been multiple positive cases that have gone undisclosed, and noted that advance staff who scout locations ahead of presidential travel have tested positive previously.

While senior staff members — including Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Meadows and Vice President Pence — tested negative on Friday, the virus’ incubation period makes it possible that they or others could test positive in the days to come.

“We’ve tested all of our core staff, and I can tell you that Mr. Kushner, Mr. Scavino, myself, a number of us have been tested and have come back with negative results,” Meadows told reporters as he stood in the White House driveway not wearing a mask. 

“And yet, at the same time I fully expect that, as this virus continues to go on, other people in the White House will certainly have a positive test result, and we’ve got the mitigation plan in place to make sure the government not only continues to move forward but the work of the American people continues to move forward,” he added. 

Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the effect on the public’s perception of the virus going forward could depend on how severe Trump’s symptoms get, given that many people have relatively mild symptoms.

“If our president doesn’t do well in this infection, it might cause a lot of people who are thinking that it’s a hoax to think twice,” Mina said. “If he sails through it, which is the most probabilistically likely scenario, then it could potentially create more fuel for somebody who’s already disregarded this virus as not important to continue doing so.”

Tags Bill Pascrell Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Hope Hicks Ivanka Trump Jared Kushner Joe Biden Mark Meadows Mike Pence Trump positive test

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