Public health experts say Trump is bungling the coronavirus response

"Trump's reaction was ... if not the worst in the world ... among the worst in the world. It was dangerous."

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published March 28, 2020 10:00AM (EDT)

President Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

A public health expert told Salon that President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been abysmal.

"It definitely made it worse," Dr. William Haseltine told Salon when asked about Trump's reluctance to acknowledge the severity of the pandemic in January and February, when news of it first broke from China. "And his reaction was — if not the worst in the world — among the worst in the world. It was dangerous. It was spineless. It was heedless. It was self-serving."

Haseltine is a biologist renowned for his work in confronting the HIV/AIDS epidemic, for fighting anthrax and for advancing our knowledge of the human genome. He is also the founder and former CEO of Human Genome Sciences, and is currently the chair and president of the global health think tank Access Health International.

By his estimate, Trump's performance was very poor — and "did, and will" cost lives.

"He should have been warning us it was coming," Haseltine told Salon. "He should have been preparing by stockpiling all the necessary equipment. But even today we're not doing what we should do. Let me put it that way. What we should be doing is contact tracing [identifying people who may have come in contact with infected patients] and having mandatory quarantines for everybody who's been exposed. And quarantining not at home, but in hotel rooms, single occupancy hotel rooms."

He added, "That's how the Chinese control the epidemic. Anybody who was exposed, was confined to a hotel room for at least 14 days from the time of exposure. And they were served meals by hazmat-clad attendants. They weren't allowed to open their door. And even today, if you come into China from outside, you're required to do this quarantine at home without opening your door for 14 days. If you've come from another city within China — to Beijing for example — you've got to self-quarantine for 14 days. Even if it's a low-incidence area, you have to self-quarantine."

Haseltine still believes these measures are warranted.

"We've got to do very serious contact tracing, followed by mandatory quarantine for anyone who is exposed," Haseltine explained. "At this point, for example, that would include most of the Senate who encountered Rand Paul [the Republican senator from Kentucky who was diagnosed with COVID-19]. If we were in China, every single senator who had contact with Rand Paul would be in a 14-day single isolation hotel room. That's how they control the virus. And we don't."

Trump has expressed concern that voters might turn against him due to his response to the virus. He tweeted on Wednesday that "the LameStream Media is the dominant force in trying to get me to keep our Country closed as long as possible in the hope that it will be detrimental to my election success." In addition to minimizing the threat for two months, Trump disbanded a National Security Council pandemic panel that experts had praised, advocated major budget cuts to the Centers for Disease Control, misrepresented factors that supposedly could kill the virus and pushed for pseudo-scientific or untested potential cures to the disease. The president has focused on reviving the economy as soon as possible, regardless of the threat to public health, even tweeting that we are at risk of having "the cure be worse than the problem itself."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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