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Adstoppi Blog | President Trump's reckless coronavirus statements put the entire US at risk

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President Trump seems to have wished a vaccine for the new coronavirus into existence. "I think that whole situation will start working out," he told reporters at a press conference in India. "We're very close to a vaccine."

At a Senate hearing that same day, Trump's acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf took a similar line, promising a vaccine would be ready within "several months."

"You're telling me we're months away from having a vaccine?" asked Senator John Kennedy (R-LA). "That's your testimony as head of the Department of Homeland Security?"

"That's what I've been told by HHS and CDC, yes," Wolf responded.

None of it was true. The CDC estimates that a vaccine for the new coronavirus is unlikely to be available in the next 12-18 months, far too late to be useful in preventing an outbreak in the US. Asked about the ambitious estimate in the same hearing, HHS Secretary Alex Azar said simply, "that's never happened in human history."

The White House has walked back Trump's comments, claiming the president was talking about the development of an Ebola vaccine. (The VSV Ebola vaccine has been in use since 2016, but was only licensed by the FDA in December.) But more broadly, the White House continues to insist the disease is not a threat, with one senior advisor describing the disease as largely contained within the US. It's a direct contradiction of guidance from the CDC, which is treating a US-based outbreak as an inevitability.

This is not a good time to be spreading confusion about public health. Once confined to Wuhan, then to China, the new virus is now spreading internationally, with hundreds infected in Italy, South Korea, and Japan. Preparing for a US outbreak is going to require ample medical resources, robust communication, and, most importantly, the public trust. Instead, Trump has minimized the threat and spread bizarre lies, making it hard for the average citizen to know what to expect. When a US outbreak does happen, that confusion could encourage panic a panic that could amplify the damage from the disease itself.

So far, Trump seems most concerned about the disease's effect on the stock market. His first statements on the possibility of a US outbreak came yesterday, after a 3 percent drop that wiped out the last two months of gains. "The coronavirus is very much under control in the USA," Trump tweeted. "CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!" The same day, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow told The Washington Post that the market would rally, and investors "should seriously consider buying these dips."

The White House's approach makes sense if you're focused on the short-term movement of financial markets, but it's terrible for public health. As emergency managers pointed out, public officials should be preparing for the worst and making sure any impact that happens doesn't take hospitals and local governments by surprise. The CDC has been straightforward about that worst-case scenario, but Trump seems eager to walk it back, which could convince local governments and public health officials to stand down at the worst possible time.

More recently, Trump used the disease funding request as an opportunity to take shots at his political rivals. "Cryin' Chuck Schumer is complaining, for publicity purposes only, that I should be asking for more money than $2.5 Billion to prepare for Coronavirus," the president tweeted in the wake of the Senate hearing. "He didn't like my early travel closings. I was right. He is incompetent!"

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