Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, has become a household name for many Americans. His fact-based warnings about the spread of coronavirus have sometimes contradicted President Donald Trump’s rosy assertions that the illness will soon be vanquished.
In Maine, Dr. Nirav Shah, head of the state’s Center for Disease Control, has also gained widespread appreciation through his informative daily briefings on the status of the virus in the Pine Tree State.
The difference is that while the president typically leads press briefings touting all the things his administration has done to combat coronavirus, Maine Gov. Janet Mills has allowed Shah, the medical expert, to become the public face of Maine’s COVID-19 response.
This is how it should be. Americans and Mainers want to know where, and how, coronavirus is spreading. They want to know what concrete steps they can take to protect themselves from the illness that has been found in 168 people in Maine, and more than 86,000 Americans, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, considered by experts to be the most accurate count.
The U.S. now has the most COVID-19 cases in the world.
This highlights the bungling of the country’s preparation for and response to the virus, which was first detected in China in December.
Rather than allowing doctors and scientists to be the public face of the American response — the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been conspicuously absent from many of his frequent briefings — President Donald Trump has long been spreading misleading and even demonstrably false information about coronavirus.
The result has been a dangerous set of mixed messages. Governors in many states, including Gov. Janet Mills in Maine, and local officials, have issued emergency orders to close nonessential businesses and to limit contact in those that remain open. Communities such as Bangor and Portland have done the same and urged residents to shelter in place.
The way Trump has downplayed the severity of the pandemic gives the impression he is more concerned about boosting his re-election chances and burnishing his image. In early February, he said the virus would go away in the spring, when it gets warmer. Later that month, he said the number of cases was “ going down” when in fact they’ve been on the rise since February.
When asked last week how he would reassure Americans who are scared, he lashed out at the reporter who posed the question.
The president has also at times modeled some of the very behavior — shaking hands, sharing a microphone with a group of people standing shoulder-to-shoulder, not 6 or more feet apart — that health experts had warned Americans to stop.
This week, the president said he was considering lifting restrictions on citizens and businesses by Easter because the closures and other measures were taking a big toll on the U.S. economy. It is true that the economic consequences of ordering many businesses to close and telling people to stay home, and therefore to largely stop pumping money into the economy, are dire, and many of our friends and neighbors are losing vital paychecks. Yet these restrictions are necessary to slow the spread of the disease so our health care system has a chance to treat the Americans that are seeking, and increasingly will continue to seek, medical care.
No one is happy to see the economic devastation caused by these restrictions, but suggesting they can soon be lifted is foolish — and against the advice of experts. Plus, the whole point of the $2 trillion relief package that Congress has passed is to help American workers and businesses weather the coronavirus-triggered economic slowdown.
We’ve said it before and we’ll stay it again: Trump needs to yield his national soap box to medical and public health experts. Every day that he contradicts what medical experts — and state governors, like Mills — are telling Americans to do is another day when the spread of coronavirus is likely to get worse.
Listen to Shah and Fauci. Act like the virus is in your community, because it probably is. That means staying home if possible, washing your hands frequently and going out only for essentials and exercise (on your own or with your family in your neighborhood, not state parks and beaches that are overcrowded, risking the spread of coronavirus).
And, expect to do so long beyond Easter.