COMMENTARY

COVID-19 death toll keeps rising — and the media should hold Trump accountable

Trump's calamitous response to the pandemic is one of the worst political failures in history. It's time to say so

By Dan Froomkin

Published June 23, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

Coronavirus indicator going up (Getty Images)
Coronavirus indicator going up (Getty Images)

This article was co-produced with Press Watch, an independent site that monitors and critiques American political coverage. Please consider supporting Press Watch by making a donation.

Here's what you should be reading or hearing from our top news organizations:

Donald Trump today condemned tens of thousands of Americans to death, opting to almost completely ignore the ongoing coronavirus pandemic for political and personal reasons rather than take a series of simple but hugely consequential steps that public health officials consider imperative.

Rather than promote the use of face masks, Trump refuses to wear one in public and criticizes those who do.

Rather than urge the public to continue social distancing, Trump convened the largest crowd at any indoor event since the danger of the coronavirus became understood.

Rather than use his office to inform and educate citizens about how to minimize their exposure to the virus, Trump lies, and says the threat is behind us. "The numbers are very minuscule compared to what it was. It's dying out," he told one TV reporter on Wednesday. "The virus is, uh, abating. We know how to handle it. We know where to go, and how to do it," he told another.

And rather than head a national push for contact-tracing — which public-health experts say is the key to finding and controlling outbreaks going forward — Trump is undermining even something as basic as testing, calling it "overrated" and saying "it makes us look bad" in a Wall Street Journal interview.

Holding him accountable

There is so much going on in this crazy world right now. I get that. But our top news organizations still need to keep a singular focus on the COVID-19 pandemic and the Trump administration's calamitous response. And they need to be relentless in holding Trump personally to account.

This, or some variation thereof, is the story that every news organization should be running, every day, until the president of the United States starts acting like pretty much any other human being would in his place.

There's a danger of repetition, sure, but Trump's failure is an ongoing tragedy, and our journalism should reflect the alarm, the feeling of panic that every day Trump refuses to change his ways means more needless suffering and death.

The failure at contact tracing 

One element of the story that has not been much pursued is Trump's role in the absence of any kind of national contact tracing initiative — even though that absence is a central reason to why people and institutions across the country are responding so inconsistently to the virus.

In short, the lack of contact tracing guarantees that Americans — collectively and individually — will both overreact and underreact to the virus, because we don't have the information we need to react appropriately.

When contact-tracing works the way it's supposed to, people in a community who are identified as having the virus are not only quickly identified through testing, but anyone with whom they've had contact is also quickly identified, and told they need to be quarantined or isolated.

In a community with effective contact-tracing, the chances of random exposure to the virus are pretty small.

Is it safe to go to your neighborhood restaurant? Only if your community is being carefully monitored and people who may have been exposed to the virus are staying home.

Without contact tracing, you simply cannot make an informed decision, so you are bound to be either more scared than you should be — or less scared than you should be.

Experts couldn't be more clear about the need for an effective program:

Trump's failure to back a coordinated national approach to contact tracing has been in evidence for months.

Back in April, a bipartisan group of health leaders called for Congress to fund 180,000 contact tracers, at a cost of $12 billion — along with about $35 billion to support people who voluntarily self-isolate. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., have pushed for the creation of what they call a "Coronavirus Containment Corps" to hire, train and deploy contact tracers, support specialists and investigators, at a cost of about $10 billion.

Trump has barely talked about contact tracing, except to falsely brag about it. "We've gotten good at tracing," Trump said at an April 23 press conference. An NBC fact-check concluded otherwise.

NBC News' Erik Ortiz wrote a powerful article in May:

As public health officials point to contact tracing as a key component for tracking the spread of the coronavirus and preventing a flare-up of cases amid the wave of reopenings, some agencies are wrestling with a lack of necessary resources from the federal government, a need for more qualified workers and a growing backlash of misinformation.

Making matters worse are the absence of a cohesive national plan and coherent communication from the White House about the importance of contact tracing, said  Jeremy Konyndy, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development who coordinated the United States' humanitarian response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

"It's a massive messaging failure from this administration," he said…

Konyndyk added that the country is "not as ready as we could have been" if the government had started preparing the public for the idea of tracing and the effort involved while most people were still isolating at home. "But the federal government chose not to own the issue," he said.

And Benjamin Wallace-Wells wrote this week in the New Yorker:

Although Anthony Fauci, the President's leading public-health adviser on the crisis, said at a press conference in mid-April that "the real proof of the pudding" of reopening would be how quickly new outbreaks could be traced and isolated, the federal government has offered little guidance on how states should do that ….

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised that contact tracing was warranted for anyone who had been within six feet of an infected person for ten minutes, but offered no guidance on program design. How many people each state would need, whether the hires needed to be medical professionals, what outcomes they ought to measure, and what standards would indicate success — all of this was left up to the states. ….

Tom Frieden, who led the C.D.C. during the Obama Administration and is consulting on New York's contact-tracing project, told me, "Big picture, the U.S. is just way behind." Without widespread contact tracing, the U.S. doesn't know how many cases do not have an identifiable source of transmission, but it's almost certainly in the tens of thousands. "We have this enormous outbreak, we're working really hard on it, there's a lot you can do to control it — but, look at this, we've got unlinked spreading in the community, and that means it could explode." Frieden said. The American response, in his view, was characterized by "this kind of lack of seeing the essence of what's important."

Some sufficiently alarmist news stories

CNN's Stephen Collinson on Tuesday wrote about Trump's Tulsa rally as "only the most dramatic example of the President's refusal to temper his behavior any longer to reflect a pandemic that has buckled the rhythm of normal life." He continued:

In order to push economic openings, he is continuing to spread disinformation about the disease and the state of US testing. The cumulative effect is that it makes it seem like the worst public health crisis in 100 years has all but passed. By suppressing the White House appearances of leading governmental health officials and flouting his government's advice on wearing a mask, Trump is also downplaying the seriousness of a virus that is still killing thousands of Americans every week.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Noah Weiland, Sarah Mervosh and David E. Sanger had a terrific, broad take in the New York Times on Thursday about how Trump's mixed messages come as he has basically silenced "Washington's public health bully pulpit":

"As states are moving to reopen the economy, as people are increasing their social activities, it becomes even more important that the public understand the critical value in following public health guidance — wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands, staying home if you're sick," said Dr. Richard Besser, a former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose regular briefings during the H1N1 pandemic of 2009 have been cited as a model of good crisis communications.

But, he added, "without that daily reinforcement, you have what is happening around the country — people not believing the pandemic is real, cases rising in some places and the possibility that some communities' health care systems will get overwhelmed."

They provided an important reminder of the context:

About 800 Americans a day are still dying of Covid-19, a pace that, if sustained over the next few months, would yield more than 200,000 dead by the end of September. Arizona, Florida, Nevada, Oregon and Texas all reported their largest one-day increases in new cases on Tuesday.

Vice President Mike Pence's attempt to be reassuring resulted in some feisty reporting.

Ryan Lizza and Renuka Rayasam wrote for Politico: "Pence abruptly reinvented himself as a coronavirus skeptic this week, with comments and an op-ed article that stray into pandemic denialism."

In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, Pence declared that "The media has tried to scare the American people every step of the way," and he called 750 deaths a day "a cause for celebration."

Katie Rogers and Jonathan Martin wrote for the New York Times about how Pence also "encouraged governors on Monday to adopt the administration's explanation that a rise in testing was a reason behind new coronavirus outbreaks, even though testing data has shown that such a claim is misleading."

Science writer Ferris Jabr summed up where things stand in this tweet:

Be outraged

Even New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who I don't think I've ever quoted favorably before, captured the sweep of what's going on:

When the full record of the coronavirus in America is written, historians may argue that President Trump's biggest mistake was not what he failed to do in early 2020, when the right strategy for combating the virus was widely debated, unproven and hard. No, they will point to what Trump failed to do in June 2020, when the right strategy was clear, proven and relatively easy.…

It is absolutely devilish — like Trump wakes up every morning and asks himself: What health expert's advice can I defy today? What simple gesture to reduce the odds that the coronavirus continues to surge, post-lockdowns, can I ignore today? What quack remedy can I promote today?

I'll leave you with the words of Washington Post political blogger Paul Waldman, whose post on Wednesday was one of the best things I've read on Trump's viral failure in a long time. His outrage should be your outrage:

[I]n a propaganda effort that can only be described as obscene, the Trump administration is trying to convince us not only that the pandemic is all but behind us, but also that its spectacularly incompetent response has been a great triumph.

This will without a doubt go down as one of the worst presidential failures in American history. And we can see now that it had three distinct (if overlapping) phases.

The first was the denial phase, in which President Trump dismissed the danger from the virus and did almost nothing to prepare for its arrival. The second was the mismanagement phase, in which his administration utterly failed to control the virus as it swept across the country.

The third was the polarization phase, in which, for his own vulgar political reasons, Trump attacked Democratic governors trying to contain the virus, discouraged social distancing and mask-wearing, and quite intentionally created an atmosphere in which loud refusal to take the measures that we know reduce the spread of infection is how you prove you're a loyal Republican.

Waldman concludes:

This pandemic is an era-defining catastrophe, and it didn't have to be this way. It's almost impossible to imagine a president more ill-prepared, by virtue of experience and temperament and judgment, to handle it, and all our worst fears have come true. Don't let him or any of his lackeys tell you otherwise.


Dan Froomkin

Dan Froomkin is Editor of Press Watch. He wrote the daily White House Watch column for the Washington Post during the George W. Bush administration, then served as Washington bureau chief and senior writer at Huffington Post, covering Barack Obama's presidency, before working as Washington editor at The Intercept.

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