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As Trump played down virus, health experts’ alarm grew

WASHINGTON (AP) — Public health officials were already warning Americans about the need to prepare for the coronavirus threat in early February when President Donald Trump called it “deadly stuff” in a private conversation that has only now has come to light.

At the time, the virus was mostly a problem in China, with just 11 cases confirmed in the United States.

There was uncertainty about how the U.S. ultimately would be affected, and top U.S. officials would deliver some mixed messages along the way. But their overall thrust was to take the thing seriously.

“We’re preparing as if this is a pandemic,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters on Feb. 5. “This is just good commonsense public health.”

Trump, however, had a louder megaphone than his health experts, and in public he was playing down the threat. Three days after delivering his “deadly” assessment in a private call with journalist Bob Woodward, he told a New Hampshire rally on Feb. 10, “It’s going to be fine.”

Trump’s acknowledgment in Woodward’s new book “Rage” that he was minimizing the severity of the virus in public to avoid causing panic has triggered waves of criticism that he wasn’t leveling with the American people.

The White House has tried to answer that criticism by pointing to selected comments from U.S. health experts to suggest they were on the same page with Trump all along.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany highlighted comments from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, to try to make the case that Trump didn’t lie to the public. She cited a Feb. 17 interview in which Fauci focused his concern on the seasonal flu then playing out.

But a day later, Fauci had spoken of alarming potential implications from the new virus, saying, “Not only do we not have an appreciation of the magnitude, even more disturbing is that we don’t have an appreciation of where the magnitude is going.”

Mixed safety messages added to confusion. There was considerable discussion about mask-wearing in the early days of the pandemic, with leading experts advising the public against it, saying to leave the masks for health care workers.

People could find different takeaways within Fauci’s pronouncements. He told the USA Today editorial board on Feb. 17 that the CDC would be testing people for the coronavirus in five major cities when they showed up at clinics with flu-like symptoms.

If that testing showed the virus had slipped into the country in places federal officials didn’t know about,“we’ve got a problem,” Fauci said. Still, the headline put the spotlight on his remark that the danger posed by the virus was slight. It read: “Top disease official: Risk of coronavirus in USA is ‘minuscule.'”

Larry Gostin, a professor at Georgetown University who has advised Republican and Democratic administrations on public health issues, said there should be no confusing honest mistakes and expressions of uncertainty from public health officials with Trump’s effort to minimize the threat of COVID-19.

“It is irrefutable that he has played down the epidemic and sidelined trusted scientists, and in some cases, muzzled them,” Gostin said.

Trump himself told Woodward on March 19 that he had deliberately minimized the danger. “I wanted to always play it down,” the president said. “I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”

Critics have long noted how Trump’s public comments failed to sync up with those of public health officials, contributing to confusion among Americans.

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