Sep 13, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Infectious-disease expert: "Telling the truth never causes panic"

Michael Osterholm, a renowned infectious-disease expert and the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday that leaders must tell the truth when it comes to public health and that "telling the truth never causes panic."

Why it matters: Host Chuck Todd asked Osterholm if President Trump had made a mistake by not being upfront with the American people about the dangers of COVID-19 and the threat of a pandemic. In an interview for Bob Woodward's new book "Rage," Trump said that he was purposefully "playing it down" so as not to create a "panic."

What he's saying: "If you just tell people the truth, they will respond and they will trust you to continue to tell them the truth. The great leaders of the world have done that," Osterholm said.

The big picture: Osterholm conceded that the early days of coronavirus spread were confusing to a lot of people, but that by March — when Trump sat for one of his 18 interviews with Woodward — it was clear that the pandemic threat was real.

  • "I hope that we stick with the science and not with all this rhetoric that we're hearing right now," Osterholm said.
  • Trump has continued to say that the country is "rounding the turn" on the coronavirus, while Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said life may not return to normal until the end of 2021.

The other side: Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel defended Trump earlier on the program, saying that he had acted decisively by banning travel from China in January.

  • "Think about what would have happened if he'd gone out and said, 'This is awful, we should all be afraid, we don't have a plan.' It would have been a run on the banks, it would have been a run on the hospitals, and the grocery stores," McDaniel insisted.
  • "The president was calm and steady at a time of unrest and uncertainty, and I think history will look back on him well as to how he handled this pandemic."

What's next: "We really have another 12–14 months of a really hard road ahead of us," Osterholm said, backing Fauci's assessment about how long the coronavirus will remain a threat.

  • "With the colleges and universities opening, with the spillover that's occurring, with people experiencing even more pandemic fatigue, wanting to be in indoor airspaces with other people as we get into the fall, we're going to see these numbers grow substantially," he predicted.
  • "If the vaccine does become available, it won't be in any meaningful way until the beginning of next year. And then it's still going to take us months to vaccinate the population of just this country."
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