Americans were offered alternative realities this week from their president and the government's top coronavirus scientist.
Donald Trump stood in the Rose Garden on Monday to boast of his success in ramping up testing. "America has risen to the task," he said. "We have met the moment, and we have prevailed."
The next day, infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci told Congress that the path much of America has taken to rapidly reopen the economy could lead to "some suffering and death."
Concern over reopening states
Fauci was reacting out of concern that most states starting to allow businesses to reopen, at Trump's urging, have failed federal health recommendations that they wait at least until they record a 14-day decline in coronavirus cases.
The stinging dissonance between Trump and science has persisted since the first infected person reached U.S. shores months ago. The harsh realities of informed scientific opinion have proved inconvenient for a president prone to embellish, exaggerate and push a narrative of glorious success.
"We will defeat this horrible enemy," Trump said Monday. "We will revive our economy, and we will transition into greatness."
COVID-19 death count
Fauci, meanwhile, testified that while there has been success in reducing hospitalizations and infections in New York City and New Orleans, "in other parts of the country, you're seeking spikes." And the scientist offered a litany of harsh facts that conflict with Trump's sunnier portrayal of the crisis. Fauci said there's a likelihood but no guarantee a new vaccine will work; the nation's testing and tracing capacity must improve to avoid a deadly coronavirus resurgence in the fall; and the COVID-19 death count is almost certainly higher than officially reported.
The nation deserves Fauci's candor. The problem is that the White House increasingly dispenses with troublesome science by simply trying to make it go away. Recent examples:
►The administration last week shelved a 17-page report by experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that laid out step-by-step instructions for reopening schools, factories and restaurants. They included what might have been viewed a cumbersome requirement such as sneeze guards for cash registers and spacing dining tables by 6 feet, and urging video or drive-in options for church services. CDC Director Robert Redfield said Tuesday that guidelines could be posted "soon."
►A top CDC expert, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, has effectively been silenced for months after she infuriated Trump in late February by publicly suggesting that potential pandemic was coming, something proved true.
►A federal vaccine expert, Dr. Rick Bright, was reassigned after he complained internally about cronyism and corruption in the federal pandemic response and pleaded early on for a quicker response to the virus. A government investigative office last week found “reasonable grounds to believe” that Bright's reassignment was an act of retaliation, his lawyers said.
►As the White House pivoted to messaging about economic recovery, more than two weeks have passed since the White House Coronavirus Task Force — which Trump briefly toyed with disbanding — held a news briefing allowing reporters to question Fauci or Dr. Deborah Birx, another leading disease authority.
►CDC scientists complained in internal emails that, over their objections, the White House intends to implement temperature screenings for air travelers. The move amounts to window dressing given that the infected can be contagious without running a fever or presenting other symptoms.
It should come as no surprise that two out of three Americans trust government scientists "a great deal/quite a bit," while only a quarter of them have the same faith in what the president says.
Difficult decisions about acceptable levels of risk are the purview of elected leaders, not government researchers. But those decisions ought to be guided by the best available scientific knowledge, not by magical thinking.
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