NEW YORK — With the nation’s COVID-19 death toll at 200,000, President Donald Trump is engaged in an ongoing war against his administration’s own scientists.
Over the past six months, the Trump administration has prioritized politics over science at key moments, refusing to follow expert advice that might have contained the spread of the novel coronavirus and the disease, COVID-19, it causes. Trump and his people have routinely dismissed experts’ assessments of the gravity of the pandemic, and of the measures needed to bring it under control. They have tried to muzzle scientists who dispute the administration’s rosy spin.
Just last week, Trump described Dr. Robert Redfield, a virologist and head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as “confused” because he said a vaccine was not likely to be widely available to the general public until summer or fall of 2021. Trump, without evidence, said it could be ready before the election.
While there is no indication that Trump’s desperation for a vaccine has affected the science or safety of the process, his insistence that one would be ready before the election is stoking mistrust in the very breakthrough he hopes will help his reelection.
The Trump vs. science dynamic has been evident from the very beginning.
In late January, after the virus had first emerged in Wuhan, China, the CDC launched its emergency operations center. What was needed, epidemiologists said, was aggressive public education and contact tracing to identify and isolate the first cases before the disease spread got out of control.
Instead, Trump publicly played down the virus in those crucial first weeks, even though he privately acknowledged the seriousness of the threat.
“I wanted to always play it down,” the president told journalist Bob Woodward in March.
By mid-March, hospitals in New York and elsewhere were deluged with patients and storing bodies in refrigerated trucks.
On March 31, the nation was still grappling to understand the scope of the pandemic. Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stood next to the president to explain jaw-dropping death projections. The doctors said unless the country adopted masks, practiced distancing and kept businesses closed there would be 100,000 to 240,000 deaths.
They stressed that if the U.S. adopted strict measures, the deaths could remain under 100,000.
“We would hope that we could keep it under that,” Trump said then.
Still, instead of issuing a national mask mandate, the Trump administration within weeks posted its “Opening Up America Again” plan.
The CDC began developing a thick document of guidelines to help decision-making about reopening. But the White House thought the guidelines too strict. They “ would never see the light of day, ” CDC scientists were told. The Associated Press would eventually release the 63-page document which offered science-based recommendations for workplaces, day care centers and restaurants.
The predictable happened: Cases surged after communities reopened, and hope for keeping the death toll under 100,000 vanished.
CDC recommendations continued to be routed through the White House task force for vetting before release.
Redfield has been criticized for not being a strong enough defender of the agency, and those who long worked at the CDC hope to see its leadership stand up for science in the face of politics.
“I’m sure this won’t be easy, but it’s essential to CDC’s reputation,” said Dr. Sonja Rasmussen, a 20-year CDC veteran and medical professor at the University of Florida. “We need a strong and trusted CDC to get ourselves through this pandemic — as well as through the next public health emergency after this one.”
Even as Fauci was restricted in his media interactions — his candor did not wear well with the administration — Trump elevated a new public face for his pandemic task force: Dr. Scott Atlas, a Stanford University neurologist with no infectious disease background.
In Atlas, Trump has a doctor who has downplayed the need for students to wear masks or social distance. Atlas has advocated for allowing the virus to run amok to create “herd immunity,” the idea that community-wide resistance can be built by infecting a large portion of the population. The World Health Organization has discredited the approach as dangerous.
White House officials say Atlas no longer supports it.
As Fauci said in August, there is “a fundamental anti-science feeling” at a time when some people are pushing back at authority.
At the same time, at least 60 state or local health leaders in 27 states have resigned, retired or been fired since April, according to a review by the AP and Kaiser Health News. Those numbers have doubled since June, when the AP and KHN first started tracking the departures. Many quit after political pressure from public officials, or even violent threats from people angry about mask mandates and closures.
The White House has realized there is a downside to publicly undermining science. Officials recognize voter concerns about speeding the vaccine production timetable as an emerging public health crisis too. They say they’re worried there will be unnecessary deaths and economic impact if Americans are afraid of getting vaccinated, according to two White House officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The administration has ordered a campaign to bolster public confidence in the development process. It would include elevating the profiles of Trump targets like the FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn and the CDC’s Redfield.
One person is not on board — Trump. Less than seven weeks from Election Day, he appears driven to say and do what he sees as necessary to secure a second term, whether backed by science and evidence or not.
And despite the grim death toll, the president continues to frame the past six months as a success.
Trump told a raucous Ohio crowd at a rally Monday: “We’re going to deliver a vaccine before the end of the year. But it could be a lot sooner than that.”