New chaos at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over revised guidance on the spread of Covid-19 is a fresh sign of mixed messaging that long plagued the White House’s failed pandemic response.
The latest drama shows how President Donald Trump’s erratic handling of the disaster has left Americans in the dark over which missteps are down to incompetence and which are the result of extreme politicization.
It also offers a grim omen for the process of rolling out a vaccine, in which the President has already got way ahead of the science and appears to be harming public confidence in what is likely the best chance to eventually end the crisis.
And the unfathomable tragedy of 200,000 lost Americans to Covid-19 is being exacerbated by the fact that Trump is still in denial about the emergency. As the awful milestone is reached, Trump is no more engaged in fighting the virus than he was back in February when he told Bob Woodward he understood the “deadly” threat but refused to alert the American people. Incredibly, the President awarded himself an “A+” for his leadership in the crisis on Monday.
The same day, the CDC suddenly went back to previous guidance about how the coronavirus is transmitted, ditching language about airborne transmission that it had posted on its website only a few days earlier. The move came less than a week after Trump publicly rebuked the agency’s director Dr. Robert Redfield, who voiced a timetable for all Americans to receive a vaccine by the second or third quarter next year that was far less optimistic than those advanced by the President as the election looms.
While there has been ample evidence of political interference by the White House on the work of government scientists, a federal official insisted to CNN, which was first to report the CDC guidance change, that no political pressure occurred in this case. Even if that is true, it would not absolve an administration that has constantly defied the advice of experts from questions about its competence. Such uncertainty is only exacerbated by doubts over the President’s sincerity in fighting a virus that crashed the economy and hampered his reelection hopes.
Dr. Richard Besser, the former acting director of the CDC, told CNN’s Erin Burnett that while the publishing of the new guidance was done in error, he was hearing from inside the agency that the episode still fed into the issue of trust.
“I worry about that. I worry about people questioning great science that CDC puts out because they’re not sure what’s great science and … what has the fingerprints of politics all over it and that’s very, very concerning,” Besser said.
Far from being chastened by a death toll that has been averaging around 800 per day in recent weeks, the President celebrated his leadership at a rally in Swanton, Ohio, on Monday night, making the false claim that the US had done a better job than Europe in fighting the pandemic and apparently gloating at an apparent second wave of infections that is mounting across the Atlantic. He also made the extraordinary statement that the virus affects few people as the country was on the brink of 200,000 deaths from Covid-19.
“We now know the disease; we didn’t know it. Now we know it – it affects elderly people with heart problems and other problems. If they have other problems, that’s what it really affects. In some states, it affects thousands of people, nobody young. Below the age of 18, like, nobody,” Trump said, repeating a false statement that has been a regular part of his comments during the pandemic. “They have a strong immune system, who knows. Take your hat off to the young because they have a hell of an immune system.”
“But it affects virtually nobody. It’s an amazing thing.”
Trump compromises US health agencies
American public health institutions have long been seen as global pioneers and the gold standard for other nations to emulate. But they have been consistently compromised by a President who is deeply suspicious of a malignant “Deep State” of bureaucrats who contradict his hunches with science.
Bodies such as the CDC and the National Institutes of Health have been at the forefront of US and led global health efforts, including the US-fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa and the successful mobilization to limit an Ebola epidemic between 2014 and 2016. But the President has been far keener to listen to conservative pundits than the global experts that are at his command during the past eight months.
The President’s incessant assault on masks, downplaying of Covid-19 testing and demands for schools and states to open up before the virus is suppressed are watering down preventative messages needed to mitigate the crisis. His embrace of unproven therapies such as hydroxychloroquine and his repeated declarations of victory over the pandemic have compounded the damage. Earlier this year, Trump lashed out at CDC guidelines on reopening schools and said they were too restrictive, leading the agency to produce supplementary information.
In an act that symbolized his refusal to face reality, the President headed off to yet another packed campaign swing Monday that contradicted all good health practices. Trump’s rallies are one of the few mass participation events in the Western world right now – in the US and abroad for instance sports leagues are almost exclusively playing in empty arenas and stadiums.
Before the President arrived, his crowd repeatedly booed when the state’s Republican Lt. Gov. Jon Husted tried to get Trump supporters to wear masks.
“I’m trying to make masks in America great again and I’ve got President Trump’s masks,” Husted, said as he started touting masks stamped with campaign livery.
“I know we all don’t like wearing them,” Husted eventually said. “Hang on now, hang on. I get it.”
In another example of the administration’s refusal to take the virus seriously, experts who understand the true scope of the threat, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx have disappeared from America’s TV screens.
Trump is again demanding states open, despite the fact that those that followed his advice in summer plunged into a vortex of sickness and death. Public confidence in the vaccine that may eventually end the pandemic is dropping as Trump makes politicized promises that all Americans can get one by the end of April, even though so far clinical tests are yet to produce a dose that is shown to be safe and effective.
The United States lacks the national testing and tracing scheme that by now could have made real strides in limiting the spread of infection.
The new controversy about the administration’s response to the pandemic comes as the US approaches the tragic milestone of 200,000 deaths from Covid-19. Instead of rededicating himself to preventing more fatalities, Trump is showing few signs that he’s ready to repair his neglect.
He’s focused on his reelection bid – and appears to have spent more energy in the last few days working on his sudden chance to fill an opening on the Supreme Court than he has spent for weeks on efforts to slow the carnage being wreaked by Covid-19.
In an interview on one of his favorite media platforms “Fox and Friends” on Monday, Trump was asked to grade his own performance during the pandemic.
“We’re rounding the corner,” he said. “We’ve done a phenomenal job. Not just a good job, a phenomenal job. Other than public relations, but that’s because I have fake news. On public relations, I give myself a D. On the job itself, we take an A+.”
Trump’s boasts about his own success conflict with the facts and signs of an uptick in coronavirus infections as summer begins to cede to fall weather in northern states.
The seven-day average of new coronavirus infections rose by more than 10% in 28 states in the last week. Only six states have declining cases over that time period, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has put the President’s poor response to the pandemic at the center of his case that Trump does not deserve a second term, an argument he will drive home when they meet on stage in Ohio next week in the first presidential debate.
On Monday, the former vice president, pointedly wearing a mask in a sharp contrast to the President’s behavior, bemoaned the impending milestone of 200,000 deaths.
“What worries me now is we’ve been living with this pandemic for so long, I worry we’re risking becoming numb to the toll it has taken on us and our country and communities like this,” Biden said during a visit to the crucial swing state of Wisconsin. “We can’t let that happen, we can’t lose the ability to feel the sorrow and the loss and the anger for so many lives lost.”
The strategies being pursued by each candidate are shaping the perception of the current emergency in the final stretch to the election on November 3. In a CNN/SSRS poll earlier this month, 87% of people who intend to vote for the Democrat said they were worried about the pandemic. But only 29% of registered Trump voters said the same thing.
Biden, whose campaign is pushing his empathy after a life of personal family tragedies as an antidote to Trump’s style of leadership, tried to put a human face on the tragedy in a way that the President has usually failed to do.
“We can’t let the numbers become statistics, a background noise, just a blur that we see on the nightly news,” Biden said, remembering “moms, dads, sons, daughters, grandparents, uncles, aunts, friends, coworkers who are no longer with us and so many of them didn’t have to lose their lives to this virus, quite frankly, if only the President had acted sooner.”
CNN’s Jeremy Diamond contributed to this report.