At the daily White House coronavirus briefing on Thursday, one of Donald Trump’s leading doctors repeatedly explained that weak compliance with the government’s social distancing guidelines was putting Americans in danger of contracting coronavirus – only to hear her words spun by a president keen to prevent the story positively.
Deborah Birx, a public health expert on the coronavirus task force who has become a national figure thanks to her appearances at the briefings, made it clear that the US’s social distancing guidelines were to be followed by all Americans, and that less-than-perfect compliance was responsible for the virus’s spread in many parts of the country.
“I guess what I expected when the president put out guidelines that said don’t go to bars, don’t be in groups of more than ten people – when we said that over 16 days ago, that was serious. And you can see what happened subsequently.
“You can see the number of individuals that have been infected since then. The people we are seeing infected today in hospitals today were infected after the guidelines went out.”
Using her hand to indicate the difference between a steep climb in infections and a flattening curve, Dr Birx put it as clearly as possible: “We have to get out of this” – a sharp spike – “we have to start seeing this” – the line bending downward.
At that point, Mr Trump chipped in with a more optimistic read on what’s happening.
“Deborah, aren’t you referring to just a few states, because many of those states are dead flat,” Mr Trump said, referring to states where the virus had not taken off dramatically and pushed up the national “curve” of deaths.
Dr Birx responded that while some states are indeed “dead flat”, an outbreak in a new city or state would immediately spoil that.
“What changes the curve is a new Detroit, a new Chicago, a new New Orleans, a new Colorado,” she said. “Those change the curve because it all of a sudden spikes with the number of new cases.”
The president seemed chagrined that Dr Birx was focusing on areas where those measures had not been followed sufficiently rather than on states in which the virus had not taken off.
“I look at the graphs all the time –”
“Yes,” replied Dr Birx, “yes you do.”
“And you have many, many flatliners,” said Mr Trump, “I call them flatliners, I’m amazed at them. And you have a couple that are up. It’s hard to blame the flat-liners for not doing a good job.”
Dr Birx sprang back to the podium: “No, no, I don’t want to say that! No! Thank you sir.” She acknowledged that some states have had “steady small cases” and are doing lots of testing, with positive results under five per cent – but she also emphasised how critical it is that Americans living in metro areas and small cities adhere to the distancing guidelines.
Again, Mr Trump leapt in to spin the story positively, making clear he did not want headlines suggesting that not enough was being done and repeatedly explaining what he believed Dr Birx meant as she remained standing on the stage.
“Yes, we compare them to Italy,” he said, waving his hand to indicate what looked like a logarithmic curve. “One place. But we have many places that are really doing great, and I think that’s what Deborah meant. She didn’t mean all of them. So when you write your story tomorrow, maybe you’ll write it correctly.”
Dr Birx still emphasised that it was Americans’ adherence to social distancing that would make a crucial difference. “We know what can be done. And others are doing it and most of the people in the United States are doing it. It’s our communities, it’s every American that has to make these changes,” she said.
Mr Trump weighed in again. “We’ve done, I think on average, really phenomenally as a country.”
The US death toll from COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by coronavirus, stood at 5,821 by Thursday evening, with more than 241,000 positive cases across all 50 states.
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