President Donald Trump on Saturday finally did the one thing that public health experts and even his own aides have begged him to do to save lives. He wore a mask in public during a visit to wounded service members at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Given his intransigence for so many months, it was a small but significant gesture at a time when coronavirus cases are surging in the US and the President has failed to grasp the depth of the crisis or offer any coherent strategy to control the spread of the virus.
While he was willing to wear the mask to protect US service members, Trump made it clear this week that he viewed the hospital setting as a unique one – clinging to his insistence that there is a “time and place” for masks amid a raging pandemic that has claimed the lives of at least 134,815 Americans.
His concern about safety does not apparently extend to schools, which he’s pressuring to reopen, potentially putting millions of Americans at risk. His delusional view of the virus – mainly that it’s “harmless” – serves his political agenda of getting the economy moving and the country back to “normal” ahead of the fall election. But if he’s going to win back any of the suburban moms the Republican Party lost so badly in the 2018 midterms, he may want to reconsider using America’s children as chips in his political games.
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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Sunday repeatedly dodged questions about what her agency’s plan is for keeping children safe as they return to school this fall and refused to say whether schools should follow the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which Trump has called “very tough and expensive.” DeVos said the CDC guidance were meant to be “flexible” and “meant to be applied as appropriate,” and invited school districts to work with her department to figure out their plan.
“Kids need to be in school. They need to be learning, they need to be moving ahead. And we cannot be paralyzed,” DeVos told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union,” insisting that in-person instruction should be the “go-to.”
“Where there are little flare-ups or hotspots, that can be dealt with on a school-by-school or a case-by-case basis,” she said.
DeVos’ comments reflected the dismissive approach of Trump and some of his top aides to the risks of the virus. The President has continued to jeopardize American lives – including that of his own supporters – on the campaign trail. He had planned to continue flouting the guidelines of his public health experts by holding a campaign rally for his supporters in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Saturday night – which was postponed due to weather – where the campaign said it would encourage but not mandate attendees to wear masks, and there likely would have been little adherence to guidance regarding large gatherings (other than the move outdoors, which can help reduce the rate of spread).
‘This should not be a lead story in the news’
Underscoring the divide between Trump and the public health experts he doesn’t listen to, the President and the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, have not spoken for weeks. And Fauci has been relegated to podcast and print interviews, likely because he has corrected the President’s misinformation campaign about the virus.
While Trump has recently said that the US is in a “good place” when it comes to the coronavirus and has touted the current mortality rate in the United States (an indicator that generally lags behind rising case numbers), Fauci has delivered the blunt, unsettling facts about the direction of the pandemic.
“As a country, when you compare us to other countries, I don’t think you can say we’re doing great. I mean, we’re just not,” Fauci said last week on the FiveThirtyEight podcast.
Fauci also said recently that he “would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 (new infections) a day if this does not turn around.” Given that prediction of a frightening increase in cases in the coming weeks, public health experts said Saturday that they were glad the President had finally worn a mask. (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, on Sunday called the President’s decision to wear a mask “an admission” that it can slow the spread of coronavirus).
But Dr. Peter Hotez said late Saturday that Trump’s mask “should not be a lead story in the news.”
“Back in February or March, it would have been the lead story, but not now. We are way past that – we have this terrible public health crisis right now,” Hotez, the Dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told CNN’s Ana Cabrera during an interview on “Newsroom” Saturday. “The fact that we are still discussing masks is ridiculous. We have to do so much more right now to help slow this terrible onslaught that we are facing from Covid-19. With a steep acceleration, we are going to hit 70,000 cases this week.”
Hotez, who is also co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, noted that the number of cases will quickly rise to 100,000 new cases per day, as Fauci predicted – leading to even greater strain on hospitals, ICUs and staff, many of whom are already getting sick in hotspot areas. “We have no national plan, national roadmap how to deal with this and how to stop it,” he said.
A relentless focus on reopening
Yet even with that alarming rise in cases, Trump kept a relentless focus on reopening during another confounding week where he sent America’s parents into a tailspin by demanding that schools reopen in the fall.
Though many states are pulling back on reopening after seeing their case numbers soar, Trump threatened to withhold federal funding from school districts that do not reopen. While most schools are funded locally, cutting federal funding would likely impact the neediest of America’s children and hit schools already squeezed by the pandemic.
In a subsequent press conference of the White House coronavirus task force Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence created even more confusion by stating that the CDC was going to issue different guidelines to clarify the rules for students to return, suggesting the agency was caving to the President’s pressure. (Dr. Robert Redfield, the head of the CDC, then said Thursday that the agency was not revising the guidance but instead providing additional information to help schools plan for reopening.)
Even though some children have become seriously ill and have died from the coronavirus, Pence emphasized last week that the risks to children infected by the virus are lower than they are for other age groups. He said it was a blessing that “apart from having an underlying health condition, children do not appear to be susceptible to serious illness from the coronavirus.” (During the discussion of schools, Redfield also said that “in general, this virus does not cause significant illness in children.”)
But Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, seemed to imply that the nation does not yet have enough data – because of the limited testing of children at this point – to draw conclusions about the infection rate among children.
“If you look across all of the tests that we’ve done… the portion that has been the lowest-tested portion is the under-10-year-olds,” Birx said during Wednesday’s coronavirus task force briefing. She said the nation’s health experts are still trying “to really figure this out, because parents have done an amazing job of protecting their children.”
“We know the mortality rate in under-25 from the CDC data is less than 0.1%, and so that has been holding,” Birx said. “But until we know how many have been infected, we have no evidence that there is significant mortality in children without coexisting diseases. And that’s what we’re looking for right now, is to really make sure we’ve overturned every rock and understand that in deep detail.”
Teachers and other adults at risk
Beyond the health concerns about children, there are growing worries about the health of teachers, and how the virus could spread – with children as carriers – from schools back into multi-generational homes with vulnerable older family members.
Teachers’ unions around the country, political powerhouses in their own right, balked at Trump’s threats this week. A new analysis released Friday evening by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly 1.5 million teachers in America are at higher risk of serious illness if they contract the coronavirus.
Those teachers, who comprise about 24% of the total, have health conditions including diabetes, heart disease or obesity, or are older than 65, which makes them more vulnerable to serious illness if infected with Covid-19, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation analysis.
So far, no one in the Trump administration has explained how schools can actually reopen and maintain social distancing between students – given that crowded classrooms are essentially the status quo in many school districts across the country.
In that leadership vacuum, the nation’s school districts and governors are trying to solve that puzzle on their own (as the need for greater school funding to contend with the virus, rather than less, is apparent to nearly everyone except the President).
There is no question that parents want their children to go back to school, because it will be impossible for most parents to go back to work at full capacity if their kids are not in the classroom. And the most economically disadvantaged families may suffer the most if schools do not reopen.
But parents also have made it clear that they want it to be safe, and many fear a second wave of infections if proper measures are not taken to contain the virus in schools.
A Gallup survey in June found that 56% of parents with children in grades K-12 want their children’s instruction to be fully in-person this fall. About 37% preferred a hybrid program that would encompass some part-time school and some distance learning. About 46% of parents said they were very or somewhat worried about their children getting the virus.
The New York Times obtained an internal CDC document last week that warned that fully reopening K-12 schools and universities would create the “highest risk” for the spread of the coronavirus.
It is too soon to know how American parents will respond to the administration’s haphazard approach to school reopenings, but Trump’s tactics of confusion and obfuscation have not gone over well so far. And putting children at risk in order to satisfy the President’s desire for a strong economic reopening this fall may carry a heavy political price.
This story has been updated with comments from Betsy DeVos and Nancy Pelosi on “State of the Union.”
CNN’s Chandelis Duster and Devan Cole contributed to this story.