While President Trump cast doubt on the need for masks and contradicted his own scientists, Joe Biden said he would rely on scientists and urged Americans to wear masks.
President Donald Trump used his town hall interview on Thursday to once again downplay the deadly coronavirus pandemic, spread misinformation about masks, treatments, and vaccines, and embrace dangerous pseudoscience. Trump’s rhetoric provided a jarring contrast to the measured, science-driven approach emphasized by Democratic nominee Joe Biden during his own town hall the same evening.
The dueling events came less than two weeks after Trump himself contracted COVID-19 and was hospitalized. But the president on Thursday did little to demonstrate that his own experience had changed his approach to the pandemic, which has killed nearly 218,000 Americans thus far.
Instead, he claimed his administration had “done an amazing job” handling the pandemic. In reality, the federal response has been widely criticized by public health officials, state and local leaders, and Americans who’ve lost loved ones to COVID-19.
Despite Trump’s false bravado, the US, which makes up just 4% of the global population, is responsible for 20% of the world’s cases and deaths. Meanwhile, cases continue to surge in much of the country: The US recorded more than 63,000 new cases on Thursday, the most in a single day since late July.
Trump Embraces Pseudoscience
Rather than promote widespread mask-wearing—one of the most effective ways to protect against COVID-19, according to health experts—Trump lied about the effectiveness of masks during his town hall. He claimed falsely that a September study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said 85% of people who wear masks catch the coronavirus.
“People with masks are catching it all the time,” Trump told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie.
In reality, the study said nothing of the sort. Researchers focused on groups of patients who had tested positive and negative for the virus, trying to determine differences in behavior. The study found that while roughly an equal percentage of the COVID-19 positive and negative participants reported “always” or “often” wearing masks over the past 14 days—85% of the positive cases and 89% of the negative cases—those who tested positive were more likely to have both interacted with someone infected by the virus and eaten out at a restaurant (indoors or outdoors) in the two weeks before they became sick.
By questioning the importance of masks, Trump once again contradicted his own public health officials. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease director, has urged people to wear masks, and CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield has said that wearing them could provide more protection against COVID-19 than a vaccine.
Trump also shrugged off a University of Washington study finding that if everyone wore a mask, expected deaths would be cut in half.
“You have other people that disagree,” he said, invoking one of his advisors, Dr. Scott Atlas.
Atlas is a new member of Trump’s coronavirus task force. The neuroradiologist has no experience in infectious disease but has publicly questioned the need to wear masks. He has also pushed for the White House to embrace the widely discredited herd immunity approach, in which the nation simply allows the virus to spread throughout the population with little efforts to stop it. Proponents of the idea say that eventually enough people will get sick and recover, and potentially even become immune to reinfection, slowing down the spread of the virus in the long run.
But the approach—denounced by Fauci and Atlas’ own colleagues at Stanford University—is dangerous: Estimates suggest promoting herd immunity would lead to nearly 3 million American deaths.
When asked by Guthrie if he supports herd immunity, Trump reiterated a favorite refrain of his: “The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself.” He also attacked governors over imposing restrictions—which he called “lockdowns”—even as case counts and hospitalizations surge in many states.
Biden Says Science Should Take the Lead
In contrast, Biden took the opportunity during his town hall to once again urge Americans to wear masks. He also criticized Trump’s dangerous rhetoric.
“The words of a president matter,” the former vice president said. “When a president doesn’t wear a mask, or makes fun of folks, like me, when I was wearing a mask for a long time, then people say, well, it mustn’t be that important.”
Biden also pointed out that masks are a critical part of the effort to rebuild the economy and avoid widespread lockdowns. “You don’t have to lock down if you are wearing the mask,” he said.
Findings from the University of Washington support his point. “We don’t need to go into a lockdown if we maintain our vigilance wearing masks,” Dr. Ali Mokdad of the school’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation told local outlet KOMO News last month.
Biden also made clear that if elected, he would consult with medical experts and scientists on how to best address the virus, and take steps to expand testing and contact tracing to the necessary nevels, which has not yet occurred in most states under Trump.
“You make sure there’s testing. That’s a really critical piece that he didn’t do, testing and tracing,” Biden told ABC’s George Stephanopolous.
Biden emphasized that he took the virus seriously from the beginning, citing a January op-ed he wrote for USA Today in which he warned about the possibility of a serious pandemic, and a March proposal for how to address the virus. He also pointed out that Trump received warnings about the virus from experts, but chose to ignore them.
“He missed enormous opportunities and kept saying things that weren’t true,” Biden said on Thursday. “‘It’s going to go away by Easter, don’t worry about it. It’s all going to—when the heat—when summer comes, it’s all going to go away like a miracle.’ He’s still saying those things.”
Trump vs. Biden on the Way Forward
Trump also said Thursday that he believed the US was “rounding the corner” on the pandemic, despite all available evidence. He went on to inaccurately use the word “cure” to discuss treatments that have still not been proven to be helpful for patients, and suggested that vaccines would be coming out soon.
Clinical trials for multiple vaccines remain underway, and while Trump has claimed that a vaccine will be ready before Election Day, the chief executive of Pfzier said Friday that the company would not apply for emergency authorization of its coronavirus vaccine until at least late November.
Moncef Slaoui, who is leading the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine effort, said last month that he expected a vaccine to be approved this year and to have enough doses produced to immunize “between 20 and 25 million people,” by the end of 2020. The rest of the American population would be able to obtain a vaccine by mid-2021.
Over on ABC, Biden said he would not politicize the vaccine like Trump has. If scientists signed off on a vaccine, Biden said, he would take one and encourage state and local officials to promote it. But he also pointed out a problem that Trump has not addressed: the lack of an infrastructure to widely distribute vaccines.
“There is no plan to figure out how to distribute it,” Biden said. “We don’t have all the ability to get it to the people who need it. And what we should be doing now—and, allegedly, it’s happening, but I have not seen it yet, nor the docs that I talk to have seen it—there should be a plan. When we have the vaccine, how do we distribute it?”
When asked if he would mandate the vaccine’s use among all Americans, the former vice president said it would be very difficult to enforce any requirement. His approach, he continued, would depend on “the state of the nature of the vaccine when it comes out and how it’s being distributed” as well as how significantly the virus was still spreading inside the country.
On Friday, the United States surpassed 8 million coronavirus cases.