Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said Thursday he was “pretty puzzled” and “rather disheartened” by President Donald Trump’s crowded campaign rally in Michigan — at which few of the several thousand attendees could be seen wearing face masks and virtually none appeared to be practicing social distancing.
In unusually frank remarks during a CNN town hall event focused on the novel coronavirus, the nation’s top public health official lamented that commonsense mitigation measures had become politicized and claimed that aliens from far-off worlds viewing Americans’ behavior amid the pandemic would conclude that Earth was all but doomed.
“How did we get here? Imagine you were an alien who landed on planet Earth, and you saw that our planet was afflicted by an infectious disease and that masks were an effective way to prevent the spread,” Collins said when asked about Trump’s Thursday night rally outside an airport hangar in Freeland.
“And yet, when you went around, you saw some people not wearing them and some people wearing them. And you tried to figure out why, and it turned out it was their political party. And you would scratch your head and think, ‘This is just not a planet that has much promise for the future, if something that is so straightforward can somehow get twisted into decision-making that really makes no sense.’”
Former President Barack Obama tapped Collins in 2009 to lead the National Institutes of Health, the nation’s premier medical research agency, and Trump announced in 2017 that Collins would continue in that role under his administration. As NIH director, Collins is the supervisor of Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the nation’s top infectious disease expert.
Fauci also offered an implicit rebuke of Trump’s rallies when asked about the campaign events Friday in an interview on MSNBC. Although the attendees are outdoors, he said, if “you’re crowded together and you don’t have a mask, the chances of a respiratory transmission of a virus clearly are there.”
Trump’s rally came amid ongoing efforts by his White House to counter fallout from newly published excerpts of Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book. Some recordings of the president’s 18 on-the-record interviews with the veteran reporter released this week show Trump calling the coronavirus “deadly stuff” and acknowledging he was eager to “play … down” the outbreak in February and March — a time when he was publicly dismissive of its threat.
Trump has insisted he was merely trying to project calm, while charging that Woodward would have released tapes of his remarks sooner if they were truly politically damaging or revealed risks to Americans’ safety. The president was even optimistic during a White House news briefing Thursday, as he rejected accusations that he had downplayed the coronavirus.
Although roughly 190,000 Americans have died from the disease, Trump told reporters that “the United States has done really well,” adding: “I really do believe we’re rounding the corner.”
Experts have predicted, however, that the fall and winter could significantly strain the nation’s health care system as it grapples with both a potential resurgence of the virus and the fight against the seasonal flu.
“I am worried. I do think the fall and the winter of 2020 and 2021 are going to be probably one of the most difficult times that we’ve experienced in American public health because of … the co-occurrence of COVID and influenza,” CDC Director Robert Redfield said in July in an interview with the medical journal JAMA.
On Thursday, Fauci said in a discussion with Harvard Medical School that “we need to hunker down and get through this fall and winter, because it’s not going to be easy.” He also warned: “Don’t ever, ever underestimate the potential of the pandemic, and don’t try and look at the rosy side of things.”