Commentary: So Wrong That Trump Is Blocking the Gate to Coronavirus Information, Says Ethicist

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February 28, 2020 -- The presidential press conference Wednesday night on the coronavirus pandemic was, sadly, a disappointment.

What did President Trump offer? His reassurance that all will be well. He seemed to be talking to the financial markets, not to an increasingly nervous American public.

The next day he made it worse. Trump said that Vice President Mike Pence would be in charge of all federal efforts — all information from the federal government on the pandemic would be vetted by Pence, according to multiple media reports. The first violator of that policy was Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar, who said that he was still in charge, not Pence.

The public needs a clear, loud, credible voice to provide factual information. That has not happened.

The vice president is not the appropriate person to lead this healthcare mission. He is a politician, not a physician. His past opinions on science and public health are fatuous. He is simply not a credible "czar" to lead in a looming emergency.

It is true that vetting is needed for information about coronavirus, but it is the doctors and scientists of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), US Public Health Service, and US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) who should be vetting Pence's utterances, not the other way around.

Where is the surgeon general, the head of the NIH, the director of the CDC, and their expert colleagues to present what is known and what is not? To tell us where the diagnostic testing plan is at and how well our hospitals are prepared? Hopefully they're not waiting to get their messages cleared by a White House that has shown no interest in or respect for science.

President Trump says not to worry — but his own experts disagree. New nations are seeing cases of coronavirus every day. It is likely that things will get worse here in the United States, too. So are we ready? Hardly.

The public has a myriad of questions and concerns. Should we wear masks? Stockpile them? Stockpile food? Is quarantine a possible tool in the US? How would it be enforced? Why did quarantine "fail" in China or on cruise ships? Should people travel?

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Can we eat at Chinese restaurants? Does eating onions kill viruses? Can I take an Uber and be safe from infection? Will my child's day care center close? Where do I go if I think I am sick — who do I call? I get asked these and many more questions almost every hour. The nation needs trustworthy answers. None are emanating from Washington. Dangerous ones are all over social media.

President Trump talks of vaccines and drug treatments being close. His own NIH and FDA scientists know that this is utter nonsense. In truth, it will take years, if a cure or vaccine is ever discovered, to make hundreds of millions, even billions, of safe doses.

And if we have them, who will pay for those who lack insurance? Will we do what we did not do for the flu and vaccinate those in detention centers, jails, and prisons? What about those who fear getting deported? Will they come for treatment or vaccination or just keep working, acting as continuing routes for disease transmission?

An administration not peddling snake oil to calm jittery investors would guarantee free medicine and vaccinations for all when they arrive, and amnesty from prosecution for anyone who is not a legal resident seeking medical care.

Is the administration garnering new funds to battle this epidemic? No. According to The Hill, the Trump Administration "will pay for the coronavirus response in part by cutting funds from other health programs, including one that pays for heating and cooling assistance for the poor." The article says that "of the $136 million the HHS plans to transfer from other health programs to bolster the coronavirus response," $63 million will come from the NIH, $37 million will come from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, $4.9 million will come from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and $4.2 million will come from the Aging and Disability Services Program.

What lunatics cut the NIH or the health budget in the face of a possible nasty pandemic? Ones who put politics over public health.

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This nation must have better communication, planning, and facts. No one ever defeated an epidemic with political rhetoric. Medicine and science are all we have, and the administration and all of our other institutions had best recognize that harsh reality and behave accordingly.

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, is director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center and NYU Grossman School of Medicine. He is the author or editor of 35 books and 750 peer-reviewed articles, as well as a frequent commentator in the media on bioethical issues.

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