Donald Trump won the 2016 election by playing a populist hand. He gives the impression that only he can solve people's problems and the other candidates are incapable. Credit: Flickr, Gage Skidmor.

Trump tries to downplay coronavirus risks — but his scientists aren’t having it

Trump expressed surprise at how many people the seasonal flu kills, said the coronavirus will disappear and said that more cases in the US are “not inevitable” — just moments after health officials said on February 27 that they are expecting more cases.

Trump is already taking a victory lap, while officials are saying the worst is yet to come.

False reassurance

In what is already classic Trump style, he took to the stage, almost bragged about how little he knows about the situation, and then made reassuring claims that everything will be okay, without providing actual arguments for this belief.

“It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear,” Trump told attendees at an African American History Month reception in the White House Cabinet Room.

Trump is referring to the flu virus, which mostly goes away during the warm season. However, there’s no evidence that the coronavirus will do the same. Actually, there is growing evidence that it might not — the virus appears to be spreading in Singapore, even as temperatures go over 30 degrees Celsius (90 Fahrenheit). Doctors have been skeptical about making prognoses as to how the virus might evolve come spring and summer, but things are far from being clear.

Trump re-emphasized this idea, again providing no evidence to support this claim.

“There’s a theory that, in April, when it gets warm — historically, that has been able to kill the virus.”

But experts disagree. When Congress asked CDC director Robert Redfield whether he agrees that the virus will be gone by April, he said that “he did not”, and that it is “prudent to assume that this pathogen will be with us for some time to come.”

Trump then moved on to classify the risk as “very low” in the US”, saying that “the 15 will soon be down to three, four.”

He was referring to the 15 patients diagnosed on US soil. Over 40 have also been diagnosed outside of US soil and have been brought in by chartered flights to an undisclosed location.

But unlike countries such as Japan or South Korea, the US hasn’t deployed mass testing — and the diagnostic tests the CDC initially sent turned out to be faulty. Some 70,000 people have been tested in South Korea, resulting in 1,766 confirmed cases. In the US, only 445 people have been tested.

Trump then did the usual juggling where he said everything is “under control” and the cases will drop, but things “might get worse before they get better”.

“From our shores, you know, it could get worse before it gets better. Could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows,” Trump carried on.

Confusion and incoherence

The US is yet to deploy mass testing, as several countries already have.

Right as he made these remarks, CDC officials subtly contradicted him. Stopping the coronavirus spread seems highly unlikely at this point, they explained, despite effective measures.

“Our aggressive containment strategy here in the United States has been working,” Principal Deputy Director Ann Shuchat said. “However, we do expect more cases, and this is a good time to prepare.”

While Trump is taking a victory lap and complaining that the media don’t give him credit, his very scientists are preparing for the worst.

“I’m leading everybody, we’re doing great,” Trump quipped, as health officials are tirelessly working to minimize and contain the damage.

For a few days already, the CDC has been expecting ‘community spread’ of coronavirus, warning that disruptions could be ‘severe’.

“As we’ve seen from recent countries with community spread, when it has hit those countries, it has moved quite rapidly. We want to make sure the American public is prepared,” Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters.

“As more and more countries experience community spread, successful containment at our borders becomes harder and harder,” she said. “Disruption to everyday life might be severe.”

Trump also made several confusing points about the influenza virus. He claimed to be surprised by how many people influenza kills in the US but then hinted that the coronavirus not as dangerous as influenza. Yet again, this goes against what we’ve seen and what scientists are saying.

The coronavirus seems to be more contagious than influenza, and it kills much more often than influenza. In the US, fatality rates for the flu are at <0.1%, whereas, for the coronavirus, they hover around 2%.

The president also said that the U.S. is “rapidly developing a vaccine” for COVID-19 and “will essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner.” But the vaccine won’t be used in this outbreak, researchers keep saying.

The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said a vaccine at best won’t be ready for “a year to a year-and-a-half” and won’t be available for the current epidemic.

Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, currently a special adviser to the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), said that the president’s comments reveal how little he understands public health, and are “a little incoherent.”

“You know, [Trump’s] a guy that admitted that he’s surprised that 25,000 to 69,000 people each year die of the flu. That just tells you how little he actually knows about public health and about the health of the American public,” he added, speaking on MSNBC’s Hardball. “He just revealed how ignorant he is about the situation. We don’t know how similar or dissimilar this is to the flu.

“We know one thing. It is actually more communicable than the flu. It passes between people very, very easily.”

“I found most of what he said a little incoherent,” Emanuel said.

For better or for worse, Trump has agreed to spend the money required to make necessary preparations. Figures between $4 billion and $8 billion are discussed, and the president expressed his agreement of these figures.

Yet lastly, he also designated VP Mike Pence as the “coronavirus czar” — yet Mike Pence was heavily criticized for his handling of Indiana’s 2015 HIV outbreak. He voted to cut funding for Planned Parenthood in 2011, and just two years later, a Planned Parenthood clinic that had been the only HIV-testing center in Scott County, Ind., closed after public health spending cuts, HuffPost reported. It took two months into the outbreak for Pence to declare a public state of emergency. Pence also disagreed with health experts on what should be done to tackle the crisis, and his decision proved consequential and damaging. Pence’s designation as the man to oversee the coronavirus crisis is undeniably questionable.

The trajectory for the coronavirus in the US remains uncertain, but health officials believe we should prepare for the worst. We’d be wise to listen.

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