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Health Team

Cooper: Trump downplaying virus, masks 'sends wrong message'

Posted October 6, 2020 3:52 p.m. EDT
Updated October 6, 2020 8:03 p.m. EDT

— Gov. Roy Cooper and various health experts criticized President Donald Trump on Tuesday for his statements and actions after he contracted coronavirus.

Trump disclosed early Friday that he and his wife both tested positive for the virus – several other White House officials and staffers also have tested positive in the last week – and he went to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center that night for treatment. He received a combination of an experimental antibody treatment, a strong steroid and a course of antiviral medicine that he finished off Tuesday at the White House.

While hospitalized, Trump went out in an SUV to wave to supporters lining streets near Walter Reed, and upon his return to the White House on Monday evening, he pulled his mask off to pose for photos before heading inside, still without a mask, with staffers. He also posted tweets declaring that the coronavirus is no worse than the seasonal flu and told Americans not to let the pandemic control their lives.

"I feel a responsibility for [people's] health and safety," Cooper said at a news conference. "It's why we work hard to inform people about scientifically proven ways to protect other people and themselves. It's frustrating to see and hear the opposite coming out of Washington."

His frustration comes as North Carolina's virus caseload has ticked up in recent days after holding steady for a few weeks. The state plans to distribute 200,000 rapid tests it just received from the federal government to 52 priority counties to help get a quicker handle on new cases, he said, adding that the state should receive 3 million of the rapid tests by the end of the year.

The governor said Trump's disdain for masks, his decision to hold large campaign rallies without social distancing and his dismissive attitude toward the pandemic and warnings issued by his own science advisers "sends the wrong message."

"I am so looking forward to when we can have public health issues ... taken out of the context of this election," Cooper said. "We all need to come together as a state and as a country to defeat this virus. This thing is not over.

"We want to boost our economy, and we want to get our children back in the classroom. You don't do that by pretending that the pandemic doesn't exist, and you don't do it by acting like it's not going to hurt anybody," he added.

To date, more than 210,000 people nationwide, including 3,600 in North Carolina, have died during the pandemic.

A number of physicians in the Triangle also panned Trump's actions.

Dr. Gavin Yamey, professor of global health and public policy at Duke University, called it "horrific and appalling."

"It is an absolute catastrophe, the messaging coming from President Trump right now," Yamey said. "I worry that, as a result of President Trump downplaying the virus, downplaying the importance of masks, that actually people will take those messages to heart and not wear masks, not be safe, and that we may see a worsening, an expanding of this appalling epidemic."

Yamey said he was torn between feeling sorry for Trump because of his illness and feeling upset over the president's attitude.

"The physician in me finds it very difficult to watch a person in distress," he said. "At the same time, his actions, his callous disregard for others, his attempts to downplay the virus [are unacceptable]."

Dr. Nicole Swiner, a family physician with Durham Family Medicine, said she worries both for Trump and his aides.

"I was very nervous once he took off the mask and very concerned for those that were around him or going to be in his vicinity shortly thereafter," Swiner said.

"Once you get out of the acute care or ICU care setting where you’re getting the oxygen and steroids and all of this, once you go home, there is still a long road ahead as far as recovery is concerned," she said. "For the most part, if they, if a patient is slowly improving over time, I would give it a good two weeks from the date their symptoms started. I would at least say these next two weeks are going to be really critical in your care, so take it easy."

Jon Norris said the recovery period could be even longer. The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools employee spent more than a month in a hospital being treated for COVID-19, and he was disappointed in Trump's comments.

"The attitude that comes off is he still doesn’t really take it that serious," Norris said. "I just don’t think he’s giving the due respect that it deserves, and it’s frustrating for people who lost loved ones or almost lost their own lives from it."

Norris called his own infection "a near-death experience," he noted that the president received world-class care not available to almost everyone else.

"It’s a very serious disease. I just wish that he would give it more respect than what he’s doing," he said. "If I could get a message out, I would say wear your mask and social distance."

Yamey said that's the best advice for Trump at this point.

"He has not taken this opportunity to drive home the public health safety message. He has literally told people not to worry about this new coronavirus. He has mistakenly said that it’s less deadly than flu," he said. "This is a moment when he could have used his soap box to drive home the importance of staying safe, of wearing a mask, of staying socially distant."

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