I want to begin with an apology. In my Thinking Security column of March 5, 2020, I recommended that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was one of the places to get timely, accurate information about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 outbreak. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case in regard to the number of cases and the number of people tested in the U.S.
For some reason, and not the garbled ones that the CDC has offered, the CDC stopped providing information about how many Americans have been tested for COVID-19. They are also, apparently, reworking how they get and post information from state departments of health. They are also, for some inexplicable reason, not providing updates over the weekend.
The best source for timely, accurate information on the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 testing and cases in the U.S. is the COVID Tracking Project. The COVID Tracking Project is a project being run by Jeff Hammerbacher, who works in the tech side of bio-tech, and Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic, who reported an excellent article about the problems the Federal government has had with testing for COVID-19 infections.
The COVID Tracking Project’s dedicated Twitter feed can be found at this link and it is regularly updated, though Hammerbacher and Madrigal have been very upfront that they are still likely providing an under count of the numbers due to differences in how each state department of health tracks and reports the data.
If you’ve been reading my weekly Thinking Security columns, you are aware that I am constantly hammering on the point about the need for timely, accurate information. That it is necessary to avoid being caught in the trap of the wilderness of mirrors and to arm oneself with information against the attempt to make nothing true, so anything is possible. And this is especially true during a crisis. Right now President Donald Trump, a number of his key staffers and surrogates, and some of his favorite media outlets and personalities are not providing timely, accurate information.
The President has made it very clear that his concern regarding the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 is the overall number of infections continue to appear low.
“I would rather because I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault. And it wasn’t the fault of the people on the ship either, okay? It wasn’t their fault either and they’re mostly Americans. So, I can live either way with it. I’d rather have them stay on, personally.”
These are, as the President admitted, mostly American citizens. And his own health care professionals recommended removing them from the cruise ship, screening upon disembarkation, and then quarantining or moving them into treatment as necessary for their own health and safety. The recommendations of the professionals were made to prevent a repeat of what happened when the Japanese government ordered the passengers on a sister ship be quarantined on ship, which led to disastrous results in terms of both the spread of COVID-19 throughout the ship and resulting fatalities.
Three of the president’s senior advisors have also not done their boss, themselves, or the American people any favors with their own statements about COVID-19.
While attending the Conservative Political Action Committee’s (CPAC) annual conference, then White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney referred to the novel Coronavirus and COVID-19 as a “big panic” and blaming it on the news media. Given that several members of the House of Representatives and the Senate are now self quarantining because of exposure to a CPAC attendee who has tested positive for COVID-19, Mulvaney’s statement was both irresponsible and a lie. He knew better, but he was speaking to an audience of one.
Anyone who believed him and think I’m smearing a good man, should read this Twitter thread from Rahem Kassem, who is one of Steve Bannon’s key aides and one of the president’s staunchest defenders, delineating the grim reality of what happened at CPAC for the attendees, including himself.
Both White House Counselor KellyAnne Conway and Director of the Council of Economic Advisors Larry Kudlow have both told reporters, on air, that COVID-19 is contained. There is video of them saying this at both links. Their statements are, quite simply, not true.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the President’s first Food and Drug Association Administrator, has very publicly repudiated this and repeatedly stated that the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 have not been contained. Due to the problems in getting the testing regimen underway, we actually do not know just how widespread the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. is. But public health professionals clearly state that it is widespread; but we don’t know how widespread because we don’t have appropriate testing yet, and that it is not contained.
And we now know that the President has made it clear that he does not want to hear the bad news about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19. This means that he is not getting timely, accurate information about the outbreak because he does not want to hear that information. He has also repeatedly muddled his administration’s own messaging about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 because he refuses to let the professionals undertake appropriate, factually and scientifically based strategic communication to the American people.
As the most senior decision maker in the United States government, the President has a responsibility to accept timely, accurate information from his senior advisors – both his political appointees and the career professionals. They have a responsibility to tell him what he needs to know, not what he wants to hear, so that he can make the best informed decisions regarding the U.S. policy and strategy to manage and mitigate the novel coronavirus and COVID-19. As president, Trump has a responsibility to the American people to ensure that we are all provided with timely, accurate information so that we can all make the best informed decisions about how to respond.
I know that supporters of the President who are reading this are shaking their heads and thinking: “that’s just how the president communicates”. And that may be true.
What is also true is that the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 don’t care how the president communicates. They don’t care that he doesn’t want to hear bad news. And they don’t care if his key aides constantly gaslight the American people in their news and other media appearances.
As the CPAC related COVID-19 infection indicates, the novel coronavirus cannot be tweeted away, cannot be wished away, cannot be rallied away, and could care less if the president, his senior staff, and his surrogates think it is a hoax. All the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 care about, if a virus can really care about anything, is finding new people to infect so it can reproduce and spread. Reality doesn’t have a liberal or a conservative bias. It just has a factual one. And facts cannot be wished away.