The impact of Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis on public health

News today of President TrumpDonald John TrumpPresident Trump, Melania Trump test positive for COVID-19 Trump, first lady to quarantine after top aide tests positive for coronavirus Secret recordings show Melania Trump was frustrated about criticism of Trump 2018 border separation policy: CNN MORE’s positive test for COVID-19 should sound the alarm to those who still believe the pandemic is over. Nothing has changed: there is no vaccine, no treatments, and coronavirus respects no boundaries. We must continue to be vigilant, practice social distancing, wear a mask and wash our hands. 

This is a moment for listening to public health professionals — and prioritizing prevention. We must value their guidance over the politicized way their messages are often filtered and renew our commitment to keeping ourselves and those we love safe. 

Despite enhanced and rapid testing, coronavirus cases are rising in America. It is spreading rapidly in young adults, which is not surprising since many are returning to college campuses and sometimes flouting public health precautions. The rise may also reflect a false sense of confidence that the virus is no longer the virulent killer it once was in its early stages. 

Comments by Trump that COVID-19 will soon disappear and that a vaccine may be ready by Election Day, which even his own scientific advisors have largely rejected, unfortunately, accelerate a misleading view that we are near the end of the current public health crisis. This is the moment for truth, not misinformation. Americans deserve reliable public health information based on good science and data that isn’t manipulated simply for political gain.

We must not give in to pandemic fatigue. As states lift restrictions and schools consider ways to have students return to sports and in-class education, we desperately want to believe that life is getting back to some sense of normalcy. We may feel that it’s OK now to gather in larger numbers or wear our masks less often. We want to believe everyone in our family or friend circle is as safe as we are in how we social distance and limit our time around others. 

But today’s news is a stark reminder that COVID-19 is not finished with us, and there will be many more infections before the pandemic has run its course. Now is the time to listen to our public health professionals and double down on our commitment to protecting our families and communities’ health. The pandemic has claimed more than 200,000 Americans, a clear sign that no one is immune. 

The White House conducts daily tests of everyone in “proximity” to the president and vice president. But news of Trump’s diagnosis shows that no matter how safe, smart, or responsible we think we are, we are always vulnerable if we fail to take COVID-19 seriously.

Trump’s message and the administration’s regarding coronavirus have often been rooted in hopeful optimism — business-as-normal — rather than on scientific facts. During an interview earlier this year, he told Bob Woodward that he chose to “play down” COVID-19 when the pandemic began because he didn’t want to panic the nation, opting instead to project confidence to the American people. Even those as recent as last month, White House events lack social distancing and do not mandate facial coverings. Trump has refused to issue a national mask mandate and is rarely seen wearing one himself. Footage of senior White House staff boarding Marine One this week with the president, including Hope HicksHope Charlotte HicksPresident Trump, Melania Trump test positive for COVID-19 Trump, first lady to quarantine after top aide tests positive for coronavirus Trump aide Hope Hicks tests positive for COVID-19 MORE, shows them near one another where few, if any, are wearing masks themselves. 

Despite what the administration would have us believe, COVID-19 is surging. A politically driven approach to managing the most serious public health crisis of the century is not the answer. This is the moment where leadership and humility matter. Trump’s mockery of Joe Biden’s cautious approach in wearing masks during this week’s presidential debate is not helpful to a nation that is struggling both economically and in our ability to trust our government. The American people deserve better. 

It’s pretty simple: By wearing masks, social distancing, getting tested, limiting gatherings with others and reducing time (both indoors and outdoors), we have a fighting chance to avoid contracting COVID-19. To save lives and change the trajectory of this pandemic, we must follow the science. Our nation’s health depends on it. 

Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy.

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