WASHINGTON, D.C. – At the Pentagon, top military brass have been begun “social distancing" to avoid spreading disease. At the Capitol, legislators have been encouraged to forgo hand shakes and flash the “Star Trek” Vulcan greeting instead.
But at the White House, President Donald Trump is flouting his own government's advice on how to stay safe. He continues to shake hands with supporters and visitors, hold large events and minimize the threat posed by a coronavirus outbreak that has infected more than 115,000 people and killed over 4,000 worldwide.
Public health officials said Trump was sending the wrong message with his behavior and potentially putting the public at risk by sowing confusion and undermining efforts to keep people safe, especially if the situation grows worse.
“I think it's beholden upon our leaders to follow the public health recommendations that the CDC, the government, public health are recommending and to emulate those practices," said Dr. Jason Farley, a nurse epidemiologist and professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. He said that it sends “mixed messaging to the public” when recommendations aren't heeded.
When it comes to Trump, he added, “There’s nothing special about being the president of the United States that protects you from a virus like this unless you're following the practices recommended for every 70-year-old."
Trump has repeatedly played down the risk, both to the public and himself, even as he claims that his administration is “taking this unbelievably seriously.”
“It will go away. Just stay calm," Trump told reporters Tuesday. “Everybody has to be vigilant and has to be careful. But be calm. It's really working out. And a lot of good things are going to happen."
When it comes to Trump's continued glad-handing, Vice President Mike Pence said Tuesday that's unlikely to change despite going against the administration's “broad recommendation” for other Americans.
“In our line of work, you shake hands when someone wants to shake your hand," he said. “And I expect the president will continue to do that. I'll continue to do it."
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illnesses, including pneumonia.
Trump, at 73, is considered at higher risk, although his press secretary said Monday he "remains in excellent health.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges those at higher risk of getting the virus to take "everyday precautions to keep space between yourself and others,” avoid crowds, handshaking and nonessential air travel.
“During a COVID-19 outbreak in your community, stay home as much as possible to further reduce your risk of being exposed,” the CDC writes.
Overall, the CDC has suggested that workplaces encourage employees to stop shaking hands, use videoconferences for meetings when possible and hold meetings in well-ventilated spaces if meetings are necessary.
That hasn't happened at the White House, where Trump, a self-professed “germophobe," sat shoulder-to-shoulder Tuesday with aides and health insurance executives, traveled to Capitol Hill for a Senate lunch and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a well-attended ceremony, where he also shook hands with those in the front row.
On Monday, Trump was spotted shaking hands with supporters on a tarmac in Florida. And on Thursday, he's set to travel to the West Coast, where he'll attend fundraisers and the annual gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas.
All that, despite the fact that Trump has already had personal contact with several individuals known to have been exposed to the virus. They include Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, who traveled aboard Air Force One with the president on Monday and found out midflight that he was among a handful of GOP lawmakers who were exposed to a person who tested positive for the virus after last month's Conservative Political Action Conference.
Gaetz voluntarily quarantined himself, as have several other legislators who had contact with the infected person at CPAC, including Trump's incoming chief of staff.
“The President’s physician, United States Secret Service, and White House Operations have been working closely with staff and various agencies to ensure every precaution is taken to keep the President, First Family and the entire White House Complex safe and healthy at all times," White House spokesman Judd Deere said in response to questions. He did not provide specifics about the nature of those precautions, though the White House has repeatedly cited Trump's propensity for hand-washing, and Trump has joked that he's avoided touching his face so long he's missed it.
“As we are all doing, Americans should continue to follow the CDC’s guidance on travel and public gatherings, which includes staying home if you feel ill, as well as frequently washing your hands with soap and water,” he said.
The White House has begun to install hand-sanitizer dispensers around the building, and some visitors to the building have been asked to report where they've traveled recently — though many who interact with the president regularly have received no kind of heightened screening.
Lawrence Gostin, a public heath expert and professor at Georgetown University, said he believed it would be appropriate to implement enhanced screening at the White House to keep the president and Cabinet safe.
“This is no different than being protected by a bullet from the Secret Service," he said. “Not only should they be following general health advice we give to the public, they should be following much more rigorously ... because we can't be in a political crisis at the same time we’re in a public health crisis.”
Elsewhere across government, the response has been more robust. At the Pentagon, Defense Department officials have been sitting at least six feet apart, in line with health guidance. And on Tuesday, reporters' chairs were spread out for a news briefing. On Capitol Hill, Democratic lawmakers were barred from helping themselves to a breakfast buffet or touching serving utensils, and told to avoid kissing, hugging and shaking hands.
But not Trump — a pattern that Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, said appeared motivated by Trump's desire to protect the economy in an election year.
“Right or wrong, the president's decided he wants to minimize the economic impact of this pandemic. ... He’s trying to do everything he can to protect the economy by saying, ‘It will be over,’ ‘It’s not that bad,’ ‘Feel free to go places,’" Blendon said. While much uncertainly remains, “if it turns out to be more serious, the president's contributing to people not protecting themselves.”
“The president should be keeping us safe. He shouldn't be amplifying the risk,” added Gostin of Georgetown University.
“The message should be: Let's have social distancing, let's avoid the usual cultural symbols of shaking hands, let's separate from one another and avoid either contracting or transmitting a very dangerous infection," Gostin said. "And it’s baffling to me that the president, who should be the model of good behavior, is modeling exactly the opposite.”
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