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Mixed messages and misinformation aren’t out of the ordinary in the Trump administration. But at a time when the U.S. faces a looming threat from a novel virus, public health experts warn that the administration’s mixed messages aren’t just confusing — they’re dangerous.

On Tuesday, a top official from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the agency expects the virus will begin spreading at a community level in the United States and that disruptions to daily life could be “severe.” But President Trump and members of his administration have also said this week that U.S. containment of the virus is “close to airtight” and that the virus is only as deadly as the seasonal flu. Their statements range from false to unproven, and in some cases, underestimate the challenges that public health officials must contend with in responding to the virus.


“It’s really important for the U.S. government to be speaking with one common voice about these issues right now,” said Tom Inglesby, an infectious diseases physician and director of the Center for Health Security of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Without that, experts caution, the public will be left confused about their risks and what they can do to help curb the spread of the virus, such as staying home when sick.

Inglesby noted that health officials are working hard to prepare and plan for the spread of the virus within the U.S. But that work needs to be regularly and clearly communicated to the public — without conflicting statements from other officials.


“It will erode confidence in the effort if one part of the government says something in the beginning of the day, and another part of the government says something contradictory at the end of the day,” he said.

STAT took a look at what President Trump and other top administration officials have said about the virus — and what’s actually true.

Containment is ‘pretty close to airtight’

— Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, in an interview with CNBC Tuesday

There have been just 14 cases of the coronavirus diagnosed in the U.S., 12 in people who had recently traveled to China and two in close contacts of those initial cases.

But experts say it’s difficult to know whether that’s actually the case — and warn that it’s possible some cases might be going undetected due to a lack of widespread testing.

As of Feb. 23, the CDC had tested just 479 people, not including those who were evacuated from other countries. Testing kits sent out by the CDC nationwide turned out to be faulty, which means that just 12 labs across the country can currently run tests outside of the CDC.

The CDC is also still only recommending testing for people who have recently traveled to China or been in close contact with someone infected. But as the disease has started to spread in other countries, some public health experts think it’s necessary to broaden the criteria for testing or run the risk of missing other cases.

To Cody Meissner, a Tufts Medical Center pediatrician who specializes in infectious disease, there’s simply not enough information to be certain just how severe the outbreak will turn out to be. The number of infected people could be several-fold higher than current data suggest, he said, but the virus could also prove to be less deadly than officials believe.

“The CDC has taken one position and said we have to get ready for a pandemic,” Meissner said Wednesday at the SVB Leerink health care conference in New York. “The president has said this is going to pass, that it’s not a big deal. And I think it’s somewhere in between.”

The fatality rate is ‘similar to seasonal flu’

—Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, in testimony before Congress Tuesday

At this point, the novel coronavirus appears to be deadlier than the seasonal flu, though experts caution it’s difficult to pinpoint the case fatality rate at this stage.

The case fatality rate — the percentage of known infected people who die — is between 2% and 4% in Hubei province, where the outbreak began. In other parts of China, the case fatality rate is 0.7%, a World Health Organization expert said Tuesday. The seasonal flu, by comparison, has a case fatality rate of about 0.1%. The flu is estimated to kill between 290,000 and 650,000 worldwide each year.

Ronald Klain, who oversaw the Ebola response under the Obama administration, responded to Wolf’s comments on Twitter, noting the fatality rate isn’t clear at this point.

“The responsible answer is ‘we don’t know yet,'” he said.

‘There’s a big difference between Ebola and coronavirus’

—Trump, in remarks in India Tuesday, when asked about decision to evacuate ill Americans from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, given his past criticism of the evacuation of an American health worker infected with Ebola

This is correct — there are multiple big differences between Ebola and the coronavirus, which Trump called “like day and night.”

It’s true that the case fatality rate for Ebola was substantially higher than the estimated fatality rate of the coronavirus. Many U.S. hospitals are also now better prepared to deal with special pathogens than they were in 2014.

But it’s also true that the coronavirus appears to spread far more easily than Ebola does. To contract Ebola, a person must come into contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. It can’t be transmitted simply by being in the same area as a person with Ebola. The coronavirus, in contrast, can spread through coughs, sneezes, or close contact with someone infected.

‘We’re very close to a vaccine’

—Trump, also in remarks in India

Trump’s remark about being “very close” to a vaccine, made while discussing the outbreak at a press conference, was initially interpreted as a reference to a coronavirus vaccine. The White House later told reporters the president was referring to an Ebola vaccine being near completion, though the FDA already approved a vaccine to protect against Ebola in December.

There are several groups racing to develop a coronavirus vaccine, but there is still a long road ahead. The CDC has estimated that a vaccine is unlikely to be ready in the next 12 to 18 months.

The National Institutes of Health is working with the biotech company Moderna to develop a vaccine against the virus. In a press conference Tuesday, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that work is going on schedule.

“A vaccine may not solve the problems of the next couple of months,” he acknowledged.

If the NIH’s vaccine proves effective, it would need to be produced at large scale. No major pharmaceutical company has come forward to say it would manufacture that vaccine.

Johnson & Johnson has also said it’s interested in developing its own vaccine. The company’s vaccine division, Janssen, has said it will partner with Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, on that work.

New drugs to treat patients infected with the virus are likely to emerge much more quickly than vaccines, a top Food and Drug Administration official told STAT Wednesday.

“The development of a vaccine is not going to prevent a pandemic here,” said Peter Marks, the director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.

The virus might go ‘away in April, with the heat’

—Trump, speaking at a governor’s meeting earlier this month

The arrival of spring — and warmer weather — in the Northern Hemisphere typically means the transmission of cold and flu viruses will dramatically slow down. Though the novel virus isn’t related to flu viruses, it is similar to a new flu virus in some ways. When a new flu virus emerges, it can circulate outside of flu season, simply because so many people are susceptible to the new infection.

It’s not clear whether this is also the case with the new coronavirus. But it’s possible the virus will keep spreading beyond flu season. Most people across the globe are likely vulnerable to infection. There isn’t widespread immunity against the virus. It’s also spreading in Singapore, where the temperatures are equivalent to those seen in summertime in the U.S.

That suggests higher temperatures might slow transmission of the virus, but probably won’t stop it, according to infectious diseases epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch of Harvard. “I think the fact that Singapore is seeing cases transmit is also kind of evidence that it’s not a matter of yes or no,” Lipsitch told STAT earlier this month. “It’s a matter of degree.”

  • Most Americans are well aware of the “issues” surrounding this virus! Bring on the Trump vs Biden debate!!!! Can’t wait to hear the weak democratic answers! That’s IF they will let Biden debate….God bless our troops??!…in that moment it should have been “God bless America”….and the correct response is God bless America and God bless our troops! God bless the world and save us from evil!”

    • “save us from evil!” Yes, dump Trump…..

      Once again Sunday, Donnie says, ‘it is totally under control’

      Since you worship him. Explain here how the US outbreak is totally under control. Provide some source material to back up your opinions/delusions.

      He has consistently down played the seriousness of this outbreak. Lied to the American people over and over. He delayed Federal action to contain the outbreak cost money and lives. He finally declared an emergency only when it was undeniable and our health care system is playing catch up now that they have the financial resources to do so.

      He says it is not a financial crisis. The stock market made their vote of confidence in Donnies opinion that it is ‘totally under control’. Down 2000 points on the opening bell. Fund managers are using the “R” word now. (Recession) That is pretty much the definition of a financial crisis unless of course, you have to sell stock out of your 401 K every month to pay your bills. By that standard, we are already in ‘financial crisis’.

      He is not a leader, few believes he is credible in this country or elsewhere in the world. At least people that are educated and don’t watch fox news as their only source of news. He is not qualified to be our President. His behavior and record underscores that…

    • Lets applaud one of the deniers. Enough posts about over reacting, panicking, hoarding, cancelling events. end of days, etc.

      It belongs in the middle somewhere. Just protect yourself as best you can.

  • I can appreciate Trump attempting to avoid panic. But his actions were intended to stabilize the stock market and minimize the damage to his reelection chances. He needs to put the health and safety of his constituents first. Ignoring the severity of the pandemic is not going to help reduce the effect in any way. His oval office speech actually worked to increase the panic level with regard to both the stock market and the health concerns. I do not bash Trump at every opportunity, but he deserves to be bashed for his irresponsible behavior regarding this issue. I actually find more people who defend Trump regardless of what he does that those who bash him regardless of what he does.

    • I feel people are totally over reacting and it is ridiculous,stay home isolate yourself if you all paranoid!!Seeing everyone out stocking up on toilet paper and chit is crazy and then so many in contact with others lol,I’m going to treat it like any other day and clean my hands like I do everyday like we all should and if someone’s sick don’t send your darn kids to school like everyone does anyways and to daycares,respect others like it should of always been like,,Hope the nasty ass virus Poof’s on out of the USA!! I think people are over reacting and that’s why the President said it like he did,and it is like the Flu as not everyone dies from it same as some flus,so just try your hardest to be germ free and stay away from people unless it’s necessary!!praying this nasty virus just hurries and disappears..

  • So they view Corona like seasonal flu and we have no vaccine. So they want to not care at us until it mutate then millions would wasted to find better vaccines.

    • Today March 13, our President is going to declare a national emergency.

      He took way too long for his Admin to take the advise of the health care community and CDC.

      The delay will be costly in lives and dollars.

      This morning the Executive Director of the WHO stated from his years of experience dealing with epidemics and pandemics, the worst mistake a government can make is to hesitate in containing the virus. It is more costly in lives and economic impact to delay rather than delay in fear of making an error of judgement in hindsight.

      In my, opinion that I hope history and hindsight will confirm, our ADMIN delay in mobilizing resources and and spewing mis information will be costly. His motivation was personal and political in nature. It is all about him and not a out the American people.

  • “Containment is ‘pretty close to airtight’
    — Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, in an interview with CNBC Tuesday”

    “About 755 people in the U.S. have been confirmed to have the virus. Of those, 26 people have died, with deaths in Washington (22), California (2) and Florida (2).”

    Another Administration official spreading Fake News. CDC says it would spread.

    This morning on CNBC an executive of a large fund company said ‘not only has many Americans lost confidence in the Administration, but major fund executives has as well.’

    This isn’t political. Just a fact. Some more facts undermining confidence in the Administration:
    Fact checking Trump’s claims on the coronavirus outbreak—and its impact on the economy

    I understand the Admin’s wish and duty to avoid panic that is unjustified but to outright lie negates that effort and duty.

    Read and judge for yourself.

  • Megan, thank you for taking the current administrations rhetoric to it’s logical conclusion… . I am a psychotherapist and believe we are in the middle of “the perfect storm” for the reasons you have stated which are compounded by 3 years of subconscious conditioning that has to a large extent skewed individual’s perceptions and ability to make rational decision in the face of solid, concrete evidence. In conclusion 1. Handicapped administration 2. Chronavirus 3. Minimization and discounting what needs to be done in order to save lives.
    I really appreciate you bringing sanity to the chaos!

    • “… the reasons you have stated which are compounded by 3 years of subconscious conditioning that has to a large extent skewed individual’s perceptions and ability to make a rational decision in the face of solid, concrete evidence. In conclusion…” I concur with your observational diagnosis as a retired physician and a former Naval medical officer with training & experience especially in areas concerning group behaviors with stressful circumstances and its impact on individual responses. You and the hysterically aggressive reactions to legitimate authoritative attempts to tamp down on panic are prime exhibits of T.D.S. (Trump Derangement Syndrome).

      It’s O.K., there’s help and you can regain your equilibrium. Start with reading about Georgi Plekhanov’s work on behalf of Lenin’s goal of defeating a powerful foe. Then review Sun Tsu’s first chapter regarding the essential foundation of a strong state- morale. Don’t be a dupe. Opposition if loyal to the needs of our republic is honorable & respected. Hysterical ad hominem is unpatriotic & hazardous to us all, more than Covid-19.

    • Politics is after all, the art of being polite. At the risk of sounding cruel, with nearly 7.7 billion people on the planet and about half of them more or less completely useless, we can afford to lose a few million. In 1970, the global population was 3.7 billion people. That is 4 billion people in 50 years as opposed to 3.7 billion people in four thousand years.

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