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Mixed messages hinder US federal coronavirus response

By Xian Jiangnan (People's Daily Online)    17:57, March 25, 2020

US president Donald Trump said on Monday that he wants to reopen the country for business by Easter. (Photo/Xinhua)

With the US now dealing with more than 55,000 infections and 790 deaths from the coronavirus outbreak, mixed messages from the government regarding the threat from the disease continue to create uncertainty and panic among the public.

US president Donald Trump said on Monday that he wanted to reopen the country for business by Easter, just a few weeks away, as continued closures could lead to more deaths than the coronavirus itself, despite warnings from public health experts that social distancing remains necessary.

Donald Trump tweets on Tuesday morning that the Coronavirus cure “cannot be worse than the problem itself”. (Screenshot from Trump’s Twitter account)

"Life is fragile, and economies are fragile," Trump said, and tweeted on Tuesday morning in capital letters: “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.”

Trump also told reporters that he was targeting Easter to issue such an order because it is “a beautiful time and a beautiful timeline” that he thinks is right.

Echoing Trump, the White House coronavirus task force announced that the country should expect new CDC guidance that might suggest more Americans with exposure to the coronavirus return to work more quickly by wearing masks.

“The guidance we're looking for unpacking is how the people who may have come into contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus, if they have no symptoms, [may] be able to return to work [and] wear a mask for a certain period of time,” Vice President Mike Pence said.

The proposal was immediately blasted by US media and experts as a dangerous one that might put more Americans at risk.

American news website Daily Beast pointed out that the idea, if it came to fruition, would surely raise eyebrows considering the widely reported nationwide shortage of key supplies for medical professionals, including surgical masks.

William Haseltine, president of the global health think tank ACCESS Health International, slammed the plan as “deadly advice”. “If you want to really spread this infection like crazy, that’s what to do. It’s near insanity,” Haseltine said, adding that this would kill hundreds and thousands of Americans.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina warned that there was no functioning economy unless the virus is controlled. "Try running an economy with major hospitals overflowing, doctors and nurses forced to stop treating some because they can't help all, and every moment of gut-wrenching medical chaos being played out in our living rooms, on TV, on social media, and shown all around the world," he said on Twitter.

(Screenshot from Twitter)

The potential guidance also inspired the new hashtag #NotDying4WallStreet on Twitter Tuesday, with the public accusing US officials of putting profits over public health. “The economy should serve the well-being of all Americans, not vice versa,” one Twitter comment read.

Critics have long blamed the White House for downplaying the disease and feeding the public inconsistent messages, which has crippled the federal response to the outbreak.

According to US media reports, the US is still falling short in terms of testing capacity, and getting results back often takes a week, partly due to the fateful decision of US officials to develop their own test even though China had long before shared the virus’ genetic makeup with the world and the WHO recommended the use of German tests in mid-January.

Trump said earlier this month that the test developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is “perfect” and promised that “anyone who wants a test can get a test”, but many people still can’t get tested even now.

“In the critical month of February… CDC data shows government labs processed 352 COVID-19 tests — an average of only a dozen per day,” AP News reported on Tuesday.

According to AP News, four primary issues together hampered the national response, including the early decision not to use the test adopted by the World Health Organization, flaws with the more complex test developed by the CDC, government guidelines restricting who could be tested and delays in engaging the private sector to ramp up testing capacity.

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow said on her broadcast that Trump is “lying” at his daily briefings. (Screenshot from MSNBC live broadcast)

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow blasted Trump for spreading false information, suggesting that viewers should inoculate themselves against the “harmful impact of these ongoing false promises and false statements by the president”.

“All of us should stop broadcasting it. Honestly, it’s going to cost lives,” she told MSNBC viewers on her broadcast.

Dr. Ashish K. Jha, director of the Global Health Institute at Harvard, told AP News that the messaging from the White House was always “this is not a big deal, this is no worse than the flu”, which basically created no sense of urgency within the FDA or the CDC to fix it.

“There were many, many opportunities not to end up where we are,” Ashish said. 

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(Web editor: Xian Jiangnan, Bianji)

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