The coronavirus outbreak has created an unprecedented crisis, presenting a complex set of problems to the nation’s leaders. There are direct public health implications, economic ramifications, political dynamics, and legislative questions.
Various public officials must handle a variety of aspects of communicating to the public on these important matters. It is perfectly appropriate, for instance, for President Trump to talk about the broad vision for the fight against the coronavirus, to try and keep up the morale of the public (who are being asked to endure personal hardship in the interests of slowing the spread of a disease that has only existed in humans for a few months), or to articulate his administration’s position on legislation moving through Congress. Love him or hate him, that is clearly the right role for Trump to be playing at this time.
That having been said, daily briefings on the scientific and medical aspects of the coronavirus should be led by the nation’s top public health experts. They should be used to convey factual information to the public to heighten understanding of this pandemic and the response. Unfortunately, the daily one-size-fits-all meetings dominated by Trump have been overshadowed by the typical banter between the president and reporters. This often drowns out important information.
In a moment that went viral in the pre-COVID-19 virus sense, Trump referred during one press conference to the “Deep State Department,” literally causing Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to facepalm (against health advice about touching one’s face). During another press conference, Trump asked Deborah Birx, response coordinator for the coronavirus task force, to respond to a question about social media by framing it as an attack on the media. Trump asked: “Will there ever be a time when all of those really angry, angry people — who don’t like me to start off with, but now they really don’t like me — will there ever be a time when these seats are full, like full to the brim like it used to be, where people are almost sitting on each other’s lap?”
Such situations put scientists in an awkward position. The presence of Trump also brings out the worst in some reporters, who use their questions to generate political headlines irrelevant to improving public understanding of the virus. For instance, one reporter asked Trump how he would rate his performance on a scale of one to 10.
A good example of how somebody with expertise can clarify issues to the public came in Tuesday’s press conference. Earlier in the day, Trump had expressed hope that the country would begin to open up by Easter. The comment itself was not responsible. With the virus still rapidly spreading, creating hope that in three weeks time things would return to some semblance of normal is inadvisable because such hopes may well prove false.
But Fauci conveyed the point much more clearly.
“You know, you can look at a date, but you got to be very flexible,” Fauci said. “And, on a literally day by day and week by week basis, you need to evaluate the feasibility of what you’re trying to do.”
He explained, “I think people might get the misinterpretation you’re just going to lift everything up and … that’s not going to happen. It’s going to be looking at the data. And what we don’t have right now that we really do need is, we need to know what’s going on in those areas of the country where there isn’t an obvious outbreak.” Further data could reveal problems in some areas that weren’t apparent previously, or they could demonstrate that the tough restrictions needed in New York City, now one of the world’s leading hot spots, are unnecessary in other places. We simply don’t know.
When the Trump administration issued the draconian 15-day guidance against any gatherings of 10 or more, the United States was barely able to test anyone, so it was unclear where the hot spots were. This required a blunt instrument for the whole country. As testing ramps up, officials will have more data, and it is possible that will lead them to issue more nuanced guidance that involves easing up restrictions or getting things back to normal sooner. Or maybe the same guidance will be extended. Either way, it isn’t like flipping on a switch. It will depend on what the data show.
There are many questions that people still need answered: on the state of testing, the promise of various anti-viral drugs, on to what extent current data are changing prior assumptions, on hospital capacity, or about vaccine development. All of these purely informational questions should be handled by the experts. Trump should use a different forum to communicate on other pressing matters.