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200,000 Dead as Trump Vilifies Science 09/23 06:16

   

   NEW YORK (AP) -- "I did the best I could," President Donald Trump said.

   Huddled with aides in the West Wing last week, his eyes fixed on Fox News, 
Trump wasn't talking about how he had led the nation through the deadliest 
pandemic in a century. In a conversation overheard by an Associated Press 
reporter, Trump was describing how he'd just publicly rebuked one of his top 
scientists --- Dr. Robert Redfield, a virologist and head of the U.S. Centers 
for Disease Control and Prevention.

   Redfield had angered the president by asserting that a COVID-19 vaccine 
wouldn't be widely available until late 2021. So hours later, with no 
supporting evidence, Trump called a news conference to say Redfield was 
"confused." A vaccine, Trump insisted, could be ready before November's 
election.

   Mission accomplished: Fox was headlining Trump's latest foray in his 
administration's ongoing war against its own scientists.

   It is a war that continues unabated, even as the nation's COVID-19 death 
toll has reached 200,000 --- nearly half the number of Americans killed in 
World War II, a once unfathomable number that the nation's top doctors just 
months ago said was avoidable.

   Over the past six months, the Trump administration has prioritized politics 
over science at key moments, refusing to follow expert advice that might have 
contained the spread of the virus and COVID-19, the disease it causes. Trump 
and his people have routinely dismissed experts' assessments of the gravity of 
the pandemic, and of the measures needed to bring it under control. They have 
tried to muzzle scientists who dispute the administration's rosy spin.

   While there is no indication that Trump's desperation for a vaccine has 
affected the science or safety of the process, his insistence that one would be 
ready before the election is stoking mistrust in the very breakthrough he hopes 
will help his reelection.

   Today, he is pushing hard for a resumption of normal activity and trying to 
project strength and control to bolster his political position in his campaign 
against Democrat Joe Biden.

   In hindsight, Trump says, there's nothing he would have done differently, 
citing his early move to restrict travel from China --- a move that data and 
records show was ineffective. Still, he gives himself high marks on his 
handling the pandemic --- except for bad messaging.

   "On public relations I give myself a D," he told Fox this week. "On the job 
itself we take an A-plus."

   ___

   In late January, after the virus had first emerged in Wuhan, China, the CDC 
launched its emergency operations center. What was needed, epidemiologists 
said, was an aggressive public education campaign and mobilization of contact 
tracing to identify and isolate the first cases before the disease spread out 
of control.

   Instead, Trump publicly played down the virus in those crucial first weeks, 
even though he privately acknowledged the seriousness of the threat.

   "I wanted to always play it down," the president told journalist Bob 
Woodward in March. "I still like playing it down because I don't want to create 
a panic."

   But the virus kept coursing through the country, and the world. And with a 
president bent on minimizing the dangers, the U.S. would become ever more 
polarized, with the simple acts of wearing masks and keeping a distance 
transformed into political wedge issues.

   "You have to be calm," Trump said on March 6, during a visit to the Atlanta 
headquarters of the CDC. "It'll go away."

   By mid-March, hospitals in New York and elsewhere were deluged with patients 
and storing bodies in refrigerated morgue trucks.

   And that was just the beginning.

   ___

   The death chart was the awakening. On March 31, the nation was still 
grappling to understand the scope of the pandemic. Schools were disrupted, 
people sheltered at home and professional sports were paused. But the ascending 
lines of mortality on the chart said things were going to get way worse.

   Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, and Dr. 
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious 
Diseases, stood next to the president to explain the numbers. The doctors said 
that models of the escalating pandemic showed that, unless the country adopted 
masks, practiced distancing and kept businesses closed there would be 100,000 
to 240,000 deaths. They stressed that if the U.S. adopted strict measures, the 
deaths could remain under 100,000.

   "We would hope that we could keep it under that," Trump said then.

   Still, instead of issuing a national mask mandate and other recommended 
measures, the Trump administration within weeks posted its "Opening Up America 
Again" plan.

   The CDC began developing a thick document of guidelines to help local 
leaders make decisions about when reopening in their corner of the country was 
safe. But the White House thought the guidelines were too strict. They " would 
never see the light of day, " CDC scientists were told.

   The Associated Press would eventually release the 63-page document, which 
offered science-based recommendations for workplaces, day care centers and 
restaurants.

   Meanwhile, the president refused to wear a mask in public, planned political 
rallies where masks were not required, and downplayed the CDC's data tracking 
the disease's toll. And in May, communities reopened without the CDC's 
up-to-date guidance.

   The predictable happened: Cases surged as soon as communities reopened. And 
by the end of May all hope for keeping the death toll under 100,000 vanished.

   The president's argument was the toll from remaining closed would be too 
high --- both economically and for people struggling with isolation at home and 
unable to send their children to school. Unspoken: the potential impact on his 
own reelection prospects.

   ___

   Eager to find a quick fix that would justify a fast reopening timetable set 
by the White House, Trump himself championed the use of hydroxychloroquine, an 
anti-malarial drug, as a "game changer" to treat COVID-19. He persisted despite 
repeated warnings from the Food and Drug Administration and others that there 
was no proof that it was effective, and there was reason to believe it could be 
dangerous.

   The administration also touted the use of convalescent plasma as a 
treatment, though Fauci and others thought the supporting data was weak.

   Trump and his administration did not take scientific naysaying well.

   Trump installed a lobbyist, Michael Caputo, to head communications for the 
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees CDC and the FDA. 
Caputo had worked as a public relations consultant hired by the Russian energy 
giant Gazprom to improve President Vladimir Putin's image in the U.S., and had 
no public health background.

   Caputo hosted a video on Facebook in which he likened government scientists 
to a "resistance" against Trump, and emails surfaced in which he castigated CDC 
officials, challenging their scientific pronouncements and trying to muzzle 
staffers. He would take a leave in September after his actions were revealed.

   But the CDC's science-based recommendations continued to be routed through 
the White House task force for vetting before release.

   The administration's meddling and public rebukes has driven CDC morale to an 
all-time low, according to agency officials who spoke on the condition of 
anonymity because they were afraid of losing their jobs. The constant battling 
against the administration's political forces has made the difficult job of 
managing a pandemic even harder, and created a high rate of burnout.

   Redfield has been criticized for not being a strong enough defender; those 
who long worked at the agency hope to see its leadership stand up for science 
in the face of politics.

   "I'm sure this won't be easy, but it's essential to CDC's reputation," said 
Dr. Sonja Rasmussen, a 20-year CDC veteran who is now a medical professor at 
the University of Florida. "We need a strong and trusted CDC to get ourselves 
through this pandemic --- as well as through the next public health emergency 
after this one."

   Even as Fauci was restricted in his interactions with the media --- his 
candor did not wear well with the administration --- Trump elevated a new 
public face for his pandemic response task force: Dr. Scott Atlas, a Stanford 
University neurologist with no background in infectious disease.

   White House officials said Atlas' role is to play devil's advocate, and to 
question data brought by doctors and public health experts --- with an eye 
toward Trump's goal of a wider economic reopening in the weeks before the 
election, according to two White House officials who spoke on condition of 
anonymity to discuss internal operations.

   In Atlas, Trump has a doctor who has downplayed the need for students to 
wear masks or social distance. Atlas has advocated for allowing the virus to 
run amok to create "herd immunity," the idea that community-wide resistance can 
be built by infecting a large portion of the population. The World Health 
Organization has discredited the approach as dangerous.

   White House officials say Atlas no longer supports it.

   ___

   As Fauci said in August, there is "a fundamental anti-science feeling" at a 
time when some people are pushing back at authority. "Science tends to fall 
into the category of authoritative. People don't like that."

   Trump's tweets and other pronouncements have served to rally that 
opposition, down to the local level.

   At least 60 state or local health leaders in 27 states have resigned, 
retired or been fired since April, according to a review by the AP and Kaiser 
Health News. Those numbers have doubled since June, when the AP and KHN first 
started tracking the departures.

   Many quit after experiencing political pressure from public officials, or 
even violent threats from people angry about mask mandates and closures.

   In Ohio, Dr. Joan Duwve was nominated by the governor for the job of state 
health director on Sept. 10. But just hours later, she withdrew her name from 
consideration. She said in a statement to The State newspaper that she did so 
to protect her family, after she learned that armed protesters had gone to the 
home of the woman who would have been her predecessor, Dr. Amy Acton, before 
she eventually resigned in June.

   The White House has realized there is a downside to publicly undermining 
science. Officials recognize voter mistrust in the administration's pandemic 
response and concerns about political interference in speeding the vaccine 
production timetable is an emerging public health crisis of its own. They say 
they're worried there will be unnecessary deaths and economic impact if 
Americans are afraid of getting vaccinated, according to two White House 
officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the administration's 
thinking.

   The White House has ordered a campaign to bolster public confidence in the 
development process. It would include elevating the profiles of Trump targets 
like FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn and the CDC's Redfield.

   One person is not on board --- Trump. Less than seven weeks from Election 
Day, he appears driven to say and do what he sees as necessary to secure a 
second term, whether backed by science and evidence or not. So he embraces 
rallies that break all the rules proposed by his own scientists, and taunts 
Biden for following them.

   And despite the grim death toll, the president continues to frame the past 
six months as a success.

   "When the terrible plague arrived from China, we mobilized American industry 
like never before. We rapidly developed life-saving therapies, reducing the 
fatality rate," Trump told a raucous Ohio crowd at a rally Monday. "We're going 
to deliver a vaccine before the end of the year. But it could be a lot sooner 
than that."

 
 
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