Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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In a national emergency, America needs a president the nation can trust

Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, a special adviser to the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), speaking on MSNBC’s Hardball:


The New York Times reports:

When Hurricane Dorian crashed into the Atlantic Coast in September, President Trump assumed a take-charge role in response. But he undermined his own effectiveness after it became apparent that before displaying a map in front of the television cameras in the Oval Office, he had altered it with a Sharpie pen to match his inaccurate forecast of where the storm was headed.

For years, experts have warned that Mr. Trump has been squandering the credibility he could need in a moment of national emergency, like a terrorist attack or a public health crisis.

Now, as the coronavirus races across the globe and has begun to threaten the United States, Mr. Trump could face a moment of reckoning. Maintaining a calm and orderly response during an epidemic, in which countless lives could be at stake, requires that the president be a reliable public messenger.

“I think the president has a unique opportunity to dispel fears and calm the situation — if people believe he is telling the truth,” said Kathleen Sebelius, who served as secretary of health and human services in the Obama administration. “And I think that’s really where a great disconnect occurs.”

On Wednesday evening, Mr. Trump delivered an almost casual account of the administration’s response to the coronavirus, leaving it to the experts appearing with him to relay the real information and assure a jittery public. Still, he kept trying to suggest the risk was low.

“We will see what happens,” the president said as he addressed the nation. “But we are very, very ready for this, for anything.”

Mr. Trump said that Johns Hopkins University rated the United States “No. 1 for being prepared,” holding up a chart printed on an 8 ½ by 11 sheet of paper.

“This will end,” he said, comparing the coronavirus to the everyday flu. “We really have done a very good job.”

During a crisis, presidents are looked to for direct and honest assessments of threats and for reassurance to the public about their impact.

During the swine flu outbreak of 1976, President Gerald R. Ford announced at a news conference that the government planned to vaccinate “every man, woman and child in the United States.” Mr. Ford himself was photographed receiving the vaccine in the White House as part of a public awareness campaign.

Responding to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, President Barack Obama visited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to announce that the administration would send as many as 3,000 people to the region.

Mr. Trump, in contrast, contradicted his own health experts in a news conference Wednesday evening, insisting that the spread of the virus was not inevitable, and excoriating two of his favorite foils, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, for “trying to create a panic.” [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports:

The White House moved on Thursday to tighten control of coronavirus messaging by government health officials and scientists, directing them to coordinate all statements and public appearance with the office of Vice President Mike Pence, according to several officials familiar with the new approach.

President Trump announced Wednesday evening that Mr. Pence would coordinate the government’s response to the public health threat even as he played down the immediate danger from the virus that is spreading rapidly across the globe. Mr. Pence was scheduled to lead a meeting of the government’s coronavirus task force on Thursday.

Officials insist the goal is not to control the content of what subject-matter experts and other officials are saying, but to make sure their efforts are being coordinated, after days of confusion with various administration officials showing up on television. And they say they are not focused on specific news releases rather with a streamlined effort around television appearances.

Mr. Pence said Thursday that he had selected Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the director of the United States effort to combat H.I.V. and AIDS, to serve as the Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House, enlisting an experienced scientist and physician to manage the response to the potential spread of the virus.

The announcements from the White House were intended to show that Mr. Trump and those around him are taking the potential threat to the health of Americans seriously. Aides said the president wanted governors and members of Congress to have a single point-person to communicate with, eliminating any jockeying for power in a decentralized situation.

But with Mr. Pence’s announcement, Dr. Birx becomes the third person to be designated as the administration’s primary coronavirus official. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports:

Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services sent more than a dozen workers to receive the first Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, without proper training for infection control or appropriate protective gear, according to a whistleblower complaint.

The workers did not show symptoms of infection and were not tested for the virus, according to lawyers for the whistleblower, who is a senior HHS official based in Washington who oversees workers at the Administration for Children and Families, a unit within HHS.

The whistleblower is seeking federal protection because she alleges she was unfairly and improperly reassigned after raising concerns about the safety of these workers to HHS officials, including those within the office of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. She was told Feb. 19 that if she does not accept the new position in 15 days, which is March 5, she would be terminated.

The whistleblower has decades of experience in the field, received two HHS department awards from Azar last year, and has received the highest performance evaluations, her lawyers said. [Continue reading…]

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