For months it’s been said that the only certainty surrounding the coronavirus is the uncertainty in the ways in which it infects and affects human hosts. But there’s been a second constant throughout the pandemic: the president’s instinct to deny the reality surrounding the impact of COVID-19 in the United States, where over 121,000 people have died from the virus in the last four months.
Trump’s latest comment showing his contempt for a robust public-health system came on Saturday, when he told a half-empty stadium in Tulsa that “when you do testing … you’re going to find more people, you’re going to find more cases. So I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down please.’” Despite this obvious falsehood — case growth has surpassed test growth in the alarming outbreaks in Texas, Florida, and California — Trump doubled down on the claim this week, explaining the merits of a slowdown in testing and clarifying that his rally comment wasn’t a joke.
The president isn’t the only figure in the administration who is publicly misconstruing the public-health crisis. On Wednesday — the day the United States broke its single-day case record with 38,000 new patients — Vice-President Mike Pence offered up a pandemic version of the Republican myth that landmass, not population, determines elections. According to the Washington Post, in an attempt to quell senators’ worries over the growth in cases, Pence “told senators that only 3 percent of counties nationwide — and only 12 states — are actually experiencing case increases.” Putting aside the logic of Pence’s reassurance — Yes, people are sick, but think of all that hearty land out there — his stats don’t quite line up with reality: According to the Post, cases have increased “in around 20 or more states,” with “marked increases in 5 percent or more of counties.” Perhaps even more alarming than the increase in cases is the massive increase in positive testing rates in states like California and Texas, suggesting community spread in hotbed areas like Orange County and Houston.
Despite the surge in cases, both the president’s rhetoric and his administration’s actions suggest that he has moved on from pandemic concern. As Trump dodges public-health experts and holds indoor rallies where he discourages the wearing of masks, the White House announced on Wednesday that it will revoke funding for the 13 federally operated drive-through COVID-19 testing sites — the last batch remaining of the 41 set up at the beginning of the pandemic — at the end of the month. (Seven of the sites are in Texas, a state that saw over 5,000 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday.) “Losing the support of the federal government for testing sites will undoubtedly have catastrophic cascading consequences in the region’s ability to adequately test, quarantine, and isolate” new patients, wrote David Persse, the public-health authority for the Houston Health Department, in a letter to the surgeon general. If hospitalizations continue to increase in the nation’s fourth largest city, Houston will exceed intensive-care-unit capacity on Thursday.
As the Trump administration declares victory by indifference over the “invisible enemy,” there are worrying signs that many state and local governments also consider the pandemic over. While 11 states that require masks in public have seen new cases fall by 25 percent over the past two weeks, coronavirus cases have soared in states where they are not mandated in public. Just a week ago in Arizona, Governor Greg Ducey went so far as to block municipal governments from requiring face coverings, a move he revoked this week as the state saw over 20,000 new cases in just over a week.
Though the president seems poised to continue his coronavirus denial, it’s becoming increasingly hard for him to ignore the consequences of his failed pandemic response, which has resulted in more loss than the American dead in World War I. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that the European Union is considering barring travel from the United States to the continent due to the catastrophe across the Atlantic. (Being on the receiving end of one of his lauded travel bans would surely be a blow to the president’s consideration that he is above the leadership in Brussels.) And at home, Trump’s coronavirus response has helped sink him in the polls, where he’s now running as a rare incumbent underdog.