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Downplaying the 'storm' didn't stop it

Imagine a tropical storm spinning out in the Atlantic. Scientists assessing the data agree on the likelihood it will grow into a dangerous hurricane. A projected track, while not fixed in its certainty, takes the growing storm to the southern New England coast.

Government officials downplay the threat. It is summer, the resultant activity vital to the local economy. Issuing warnings that a hurricane could well arrive would only panic the populace and tourists. The economy would suffer.

But it does hit in all its terrible fury. The lack of warning results in many more dying. The failure to prepare adds to the amount of devastation, making the recovery longer and more difficult.

Would anyone find this acceptable?

You’ve probably figured out the analogy by now. The storm is the coronavirus. The target of its wrath was not a region but the entire country. The government officials who chose to downplay the threat are President Donald Trump and members of his administration.

Our suspicion had been that the president was warned early on about the new and deadly virus, from which the populace had no immunity and for which there was no vaccine. But using selective hearing, he chose to filter out the dire scenarios and hoped the situation would pass.

Now we know it was worse than that.

Trump knew it was bad. He accepted the assessment of the scientists. But instead of offering a strong warning and rallying a response, Trump waffled and offered reassurances that there was nothing to worry about.

We now learn that on Feb. 7, during a taped interview with Bob Woodward, Trump said, “This is deadly stuff.”

The new virus, he told Woodward, was easily transmitted through the air, making it particularly difficult to control and several times “more deadly than even your strenuous flu.”

“You just breathe the air, and that’s how it’s passed,” the president said.

In a follow-up interview on March 19, Woodward questioned the president on why he was not more aggressively sounding the alarm.

“I wanted to always play it down,” the president said.

Play it down.

It would be inaccurate to say the president did nothing.

On Jan. 29 he created the task force. On Jan. 31 he blocked some travel from China. On March 11 he extended the travel ban to Europe. On March 13, the president declared a national emergency and a few days later urged people “to work at home, if possible, postpone unnecessary travel, and limit social gatherings to no more than 10 people."

His messages, however, were mixed and confusing.

On Feb. 24, when stocks dropped, he tweeted the virus was “very much under control.” On March 24 — 11 days after his emergency declaration — Trump announced he wanted the country reopened by Easter, April 12.

During a Feb. 28 campaign rally in South Carolina, the president likened the criticism by Democrats of his administration's response to the outbreak to their efforts to impeach him, calling it "their new hoax." In the same speech, three weeks after telling Woodward how much more deadly was COVID-19, he compared it to the common flu.

It would “disappear” when the seasons changed, he promised. In mid-April, when protesters pushed back against closings, mask-wearing and stay-at-home instructions, Trump backed them.

As of Friday, 197,000 have died after being sickened with COVID-19 infections.

How different things could have been if the president had issued an appropriate warning, had remained consistent, had called upon all — his supporters and critics — to unify in an effort to discourage the viral spread. How fewer would have gotten sick? How fewer would have died?

Republican governors would have followed Trump’s lead if he had insisted on their staying the course with shutdowns and isolation practices until the infection numbers dropped. Instead of often mocking mask-wearing, Trump could have encouraged it as a patriotic act in a time of crisis.

And, ironically, the economy Trump hoped to protect by downplaying the threat could have been in a position to recover sooner.

Vox, in its reporting, points out if the U.S. had the same death rate as Canada, where leadership acted more aggressively and sooner, nearly 109,000 Americans wouldn’t have died from COVID-19. If it had the same death rate as Germany, 152,000 fewer Americans would have died. If the U.S. had the same death rate as the European Union overall, 84,000 Americans wouldn’t have died.

Trump had the information to fulfill his most fundamental duty: to protect Americans. He failed.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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