By the 10th mention, the musical cadence of “hydroxychloroquine” had mostly grown old and president Trump was not going to subject his long-suffering audience of reporters to even one more mention, so Sunday night he spared them by cutting off the esteemed NIH specialist Tony Fauci before he could repeat his frequent answer about the medicine’s efficacy or lack thereof.
With that, he ended the briefing. Everyone already knew Fauci’s opinion. Mired in the scientific method, Fauci said earlier on CBS’s “Face the Nation”, “In terms of science, I don’t think we can definitively say it works.” He went on, “The data are really just at best suggestive. There have been cases that show there may be an effect and there are others to show there’s no effect.”
Is it just a game, asking a question likely to provoke the president? Or is it deadly serious, probing to measure the competency and leadership acumen or just the irascibility of someone who can make so much happen at the stroke of a pen? Irascible he was, on the eve of what his surgeon general said is going to be “our Pearl Harbour moment, our 9/11 moment, only it’s not going to be localised, it’s going to be happening all over the country and I want America to understand that.”
Surgeon General Jerome Adams was appearing on the president’s favourite channel, “Fox News Sunday”. He was not on the dais with the president for the Sunday night briefing 10 hours later.
The night’s Corona Virus Task Force briefing was short on any news but long on its Don Rickles moments, the insults, but without the comedy. With no provocation whatever, the president attacked Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker.
“I hear him complaining all the time, Pritzker. He is always complaining,” the president said. “The governor couldn’t do his job, so we had to help him.”
The president attacked an Associated Press reporter, lumping in the venerable AP with his other media targets like CNN and NBC and others the past two weeks. The AP “is not what it used to be,” he said, after the reporter tried to ask a question but only got to the word “equipment” before being cut off. Anticipating he was getting another question about the complaints of medical supplies being ordered too late, Trump said apparently of FEMA, “You should be thanking them for what they have done, not always asking wise-guy questions.”
What difference does it make in the big picture if Trump is grumpy again, or really, really likes the promise he sees in hydroxychloroquine – enough to order 29 million doses? In the context of what’s happening to the nation, not much. A lot of what he said at the briefing was word-for-word what he’s said several times before. That included, “The sooner we’re getting our country opened the bigger the boom, the bigger the rocket ship going up.”
It’s probably fair to say most governors and most medical professionals would not second any motion to reopen any time soon. “Mitigation, mitigation, mitigation,” the NIH’s Fauci said again. Only staying physically separated can preserve what gains have been made so far. Small declines in horrendously large daily death tolls, in New York, in Italy, do represent gains and were put on display repeatedly by the president and vice president.
The numbers of deaths, new hospital admissions and the low “positivity” of virus testing in some of the states are enough to say, “We’re beginning to see the glimmers of progress,” vice president Mike Pence said.
Fauci didn’t dispute that. “It’s not contradictory to see light at the end of the tunnel” and yet say we’re entering what threatens to be the worst week ever for mortality. If the death toll is beginning to plateau or diminish, that means the infection rate two to three weeks ago was diminishing. That means, looking farther forward, the death toll will go down.
No-one knows if there will be enough improvement, however, to avoid overrunning New York’s hospital capacity in the week or two ahead. Former FDA chief Scott Gottlieb told CBS earlier Sunday he thinks New York will come up to, but not quite break through, the max-out point for intensive care beds and ventilators. “I think the New York City health system is going to be brought right to the brink, but they’re not going to go over,” he said. “They’re expanding their capacity to keep pace with their surge of demand, really a historic effort.”
New Jersey, New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago, Boston, Miami, Colorado, St Louis, the Atlanta area and Washington, DC, are all contributing notable numbers to the death toll. Some towns in the South have low numbers unless put on the chart with infections as a proportion of the population.
In a few hours the United States will have passed the 10,000 mark for virus deaths. Only Italy and Spain have more and again, there are signs their totals are at last levelling while in the US, the net trajectory heads nearly straight up.
Some areas in the US with less population have a healthcare disadvantage, less medical infrastructure. Rural counties often have no intensive care units.
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, or in Trump talk, “half-Whitmer” in a tweet since deleted, keeps arguing that a “patchwork” of crisis policies pursued by 50 governors should be coordinated at the national level. Sometimes the “patchwork” is within a state. In Arkansas, citizens are urged but not ordered to stay at home, yet 600,000 are still allowed to go to work. The governor says “stay at home” doesn’t always work, giving as an example a cluster of 14 cases. The “home” in that case is a prison, The Arkansas Times reported.
Dan Balz, a Washington Post reporter who did a long, thoughtful piece comparing the Trump administration machinery of government with previous Republican occupants of the Oval Office, wrote a critique that had nothing to do with partisanship and everything to do with just managerial competence. The Trump administration, he wrote, has “scores of long-standing vacancies in critical positions, hostility toward career officials who are vitally important in times like these and with an indifference to the importance of selecting competent political appointees, rather than presidential favourites, that began during the transition and has plagued the government ever since.”
One of those Trump favourites is Peter Navarro, who describes himself as a trade economist whose career highlight has been a book demonising China, who takes credit for last Friday’s executive order banning the export of medical personal protective gear – inviting retaliation, and who now has been put in charge of medical supply lines.
Axios reported he argued with NIH expert Fauci in Saturday’s virus Task Force meeting that was triggered by a heated discussion of – you guessed it and so we end where we began – hydroxychloroquine.