In some ways, it was a matter of when—not if—President Trump, his family, and his team would contract COVID-19.
As physicians, we watched with grave concern for months as the president willfully ignored the most basic of guidelines—set by his own coronavirus task force and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—to socially distance, avoid large gatherings, and wear a mask.
Now, we are worried by the president’s infection. We watched in horror as Trump left Walter Reed to take a “joy ride” over the weekend, breaking CDC-recommended guidelines for isolation and putting his own Secret Service officers at risk. We are alarmed by a growing outbreak centered on the White House and Congress, which involves several administration officials, journalists, White House staff, and GOP senators. We fear for the health of the attendees at White House events, fundraisers, and campaign rallies last week. And we worry about his statement on Twitter announcing his release from Walter Reed Medical Center, in which he yet again downplayed the dangers posed by the novel coronavirus and COVID-19.
As physicians, we treat all patients, irrespective of their political or personal beliefs. We wish the president, first lady, and everyone who has been affected by the outbreak centered on the White House a speedy and full recovery.
We know all too well the alternative, and nobody should have to go through that.
What we also wish, however, is for this troubling development to highlight this administration’s failure to control COVID-19. Trump’s repeated, intentional undermining of our collective efforts to control this pandemic has caused tremendous pain and suffering.
Yes, many people get better. But that does not change the fact that over 200,000 Americans have been killed by COVID-19, and over 7 million have been infected with it. Despite Trump’s consistent and damaging efforts to downplay the virus, COVID-19 is not fake news.
Masking is perhaps Trump’s most egregious failure. On April 3, Trump announced that the CDC had determined that we should all wear masks in public, then immediately undermined them and cast aside that advice. The medical community has been unified in urging masking ever since then.
Yet as Trump noted during the first presidential debate last week, “I don’t wear masks like [Biden]. Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away and then shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.” Biden has consistently worn a mask because he understands the power of his example.
As doctors, we know that masking is a critical part of reducing the spread of the coronavirus. That is why every hospital and clinic in which we work has mandated universal masking. Universal masking doesn’t just protect us and our families, it protects our patients and our communities. In short: Masking works.
Equally concerning is Trump’s proclivity to create the conditions necessary for widespread coronavirus spread. While we do not know how widespread the White House outbreak will be, we know that—time and again—Trump has risked countless lives at indoor and outdoor rallies, creating the ideal conditions for superspreader events: maskless mass gatherings of people talking, cheering, shouting, or yelling—whether in close proximity at White House events or fundraisers, or as the president addresses them at campaign events.
As Trump put it, though, “I’m on a stage and it’s very far away. And so I’m not at all concerned.” Trump thought he was protected by being on a stage. What about his supporters and the public? Trump thought daily tests for his staff and himself would safeguard him. What about our patients and colleagues who are exposed to the coronavirus often and still must regularly wait a week or longer for results? Indeed, some Americans can’t even get testing at all, due to the persistent shortage of tests that hamper our COVID-19 response in many parts of the country today—nearly seven months after the outbreak started here.
But what’s most worrisome is Trump’s dereliction of his responsibility to inform the community once coming into close contact with someone known to have COVID-19. Trump’s aide Hope Hicks had COVID-19 symptoms and tested positive a day before Trump announced his own positive test results (though Hicks did not personally make the information public at that time).
Did Trump choose to isolate, consistent with his own government’s guidelines? No. Instead, he continued to participate in high-risk activities—attending a fundraiser in New Jersey—without wearing a mask at the risk of exposing countless others. And news reports since then show that there is an apparent lack of aggressive contact tracing to support all White House staff and those who came into contact with the president and his colleagues last week. Frankly, this is alarming.
Controlling COVID-19 depends on people who follow the letter and spirit of our national health guidelines about the pandemic. It also depends on people being open and honest about their own health and their exposure risk. It requires a basic understanding that we are all responsible for one another. But that level of transparency, honesty, and selflessness—elements crucial to controlling this pandemic—is in short supply in the Trump administration.
As the news of the First Family’s illness spreads, we pray that this leads to a renewed commitment to model the safe behaviors and precautionary measures that a global public health crisis demands. America will not be great again, particularly compared to the rest of the world, until we have the virus under control.
We need a president who will lead our country to safety and economic prosperity—not one who will watch over 200,000 people die of a virus, state “It is what it is,” and ridicule any evidence-driven efforts to stop its spread. Instead, we have a president whose callous, careless behavior has put his own health, and those who have been in contact with him, at risk.
As goes the White House, so, too, goes the country—we are watching now another round of COVID-19 surges and possible shutdowns in tandem with the White House outbreak. We will certainly see more lives lost.
As doctors, we know that this virus doesn’t care about the election, your political party, or the political hue of your state. We are witnesses to the truth that it will impact all of us—unless we as a nation can dramatically shift our response.
We urgently need a president who will make the same pledge to the American people as we do to our patients: First, do no harm.
We urgently need leaders who will be models of public health and lead us through this pandemic.
We urgently need leadership like our lives depend on it. Because, quite frankly, they do.
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