Election results underscore different views on coronavirus

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Heading into Election Day, Democrats hoped for an overwhelming victory that would serve as a repudiation of President Trump, and with it his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Instead, while Democratic nominee Joe Biden leads the Electoral College and looks like the favorite to get to 270, a victory will not be in such a sweeping fashion.

For critics of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, including a number of public health officials, this is prompting some questions and soul searching.

“I’m surprised of the outcome,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. 

More than 230,000 people in America have died from the coronavirus, and cases and hospitalizations are still rising. Trump has repeatedly dismissed the threat of the virus, mocking those wearing masks and holding events where people failed to use social distancing.

Trump himself got COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, as did many of his aides in the West Wing.

Experts have tried to emphasize that the best way to improve the economy is to get the virus under control, but that is not always how people see the trade off, and certainly not how Trump has been portraying the issue to his supporters. 

“People are making trade-off decisions between the economy and health, which was the wrong message, and of course the White House was very consistent with telling people it was your jobs or COVID and COVID wasn’t that bad,” Benjamin added. 

Exit polls showed a sharp split between Biden and Trump supporters over prioritizing the economy or coronavirus. 

Voters saying the coronavirus mattered most to their vote went for Biden 82 percent to Trump’s 14 percent, according to an exit poll from Edison Research. On the flip side, voters saying the economy mattered most went for Trump 82 percent to Biden’s 17 percent. 

Among all voters, more said the economy was most important to their vote (35 percent), than those who said the coronavirus was (17 percent). 

“It is just *staggering* to me that the failure to get even close to controlling a pandemic seems a relatively minor matter when it comes to an election,” Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, wrote on Twitter

In an email, he added that the diverging views of the virus could be that while many people have been hit directly by it, “others, probably most, have experienced the pandemic as a succession of mystifying news stories and opaque restrictions that can seem divorced from their reality.”

“This is not helped by the choice of leaders to deliberately downplay it, or to offer competing visions of the threat posed by the virus,” he added. “Most folks find it hard to grapple with population-level impacts. A 1% mortality rate sounds low, while in reality it is catastrophic.”

Trump himself has played a key role in downplaying the severity of the pandemic, repeatedly saying it is “going away” and mocking the wearing of masks. 

“At least for the Trump voters, Trump is a trusted source, so when he spreads misinformation, they believe him,” Benjamin said. 

At the same time, Benjamin said public health experts should show flexibility in some cases by advising people on how to make certain activities safer, rather than advising against them entirely, understanding that people are tired of months of precautions and are going to do some things anyway. 

“We have to think about staying away from absolutes,” Benjamin said. While he said traveling for Thanksgiving, for example, is risky, there are ways to make it safer where possible, such as driving instead of flying, wearing a mask and washing your hands. 

One area with an outsized impact on people’s lives where some experts say closures have gone too far is schools. 

“There’s no doubt in my mind that schools need to be bolder than they’re being,” Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said in an interview with Education Week. “There is a large mental health cost to children [from closures]. And we know this is going to very substantially widen the achievement gap between wealthier/white students and poorer/students of color.”

He said schools should probably close if spread of the virus became “really horrible” in an area, but that lower priority places like bars, restaurants and gyms should be closed before schools. 

Biden is advocating a much more forceful government response in fighting the virus, such as ramping up production of rapid tests and protective equipment, which would also help schools open safely. 

He also says he will urge every governor to impose a mask mandate, and provide “evidence-based guidance” for when businesses such as bars and restaurants should open and close based on the level of virus spreading in an area. 

Mask wearing continues to poll with majority support. In the exit poll, 67 percent of voters said wearing a mask is a “public health responsibility” compared with 30 percent who said it is a “personal choice.”

But even a minority of the country not wearing masks or taking other precautions like avoiding large gatherings contributes to the spread of the virus in their communities. 

“Different voters were voting on different things,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist. He noted there is a perception that the virus is hitting urban areas harder and that people in rural areas often take less precautions like wearing a mask. 

While it is clear that Biden would take stronger steps to try to control the virus, Heye said on some fronts, like a mask mandate, “a lot of the country’s just not going to follow that.”

Tags 2020 election Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Joe Biden

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