While the United States struggles to contain the growing coronavirus outbreak, politicians and officials have published contradicting messages to the public as Americans struggle to separate fake news from the facts.
On Saturday, while healthcare officials around the world urged people to stay at home and keep their distance from others, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt tweeted a picture of him and his family at a packed restaurant in Oklahoma City saying "Eating with my kids and all my fellow Oklahomans at the @CollectiveOKC. It’s packed tonight! #supportlocal #OklaProud". The tweet was deleted an hour later, according to ProPublica.
US Rep. Devin Nunes, a California Republican, told Fox News that "If you’re healthy, you and your family, it’s a great time to just go out, go to a local restaurant, likely you can get in easy. Let’s not hurt the working people in this country ... go to your local pub.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, told CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday that "Right now, personally, myself, I wouldn’t go to a restaurant."
Meanwhile, US Senator Ted Cruz asked his Twitter followers to listen to public health officials and to stay at home if they can and to wash their hands.
Healthcare professionals have accused US President Donald Trump of spreading disinformation and not responding strongly enough in the past few weeks as the coronavirus outbreak intensified.
On February 24, Trump tweeted that "The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA," at a time when the situation was still unclear and only 53 cases were confirmed. The number of confirmed cases in the US stood at 10,442 infected and 150 deaths as of Thursday, but the actual number is likely far more according to ProPublica. Limited testing availability has restricted the ability of healthcare professionals to diagnose and track the outbreak.
On February 26, the president stated, "I think every aspect of our society should be prepared. I don't think it's going to come to that, especially with the fact that we're going down, not up. We're going very substantially down, not up," adding that the then 15 confirmed cases "within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero," according to CNN.
"It's going to disappear. One day, it's like a miracle. It will disappear," the president said on February 27, according to NPR. Trump added afterwards that "it could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We'll see what happens."
Earlier this month, the president tweeted that Democratic politicians were trying to "inflame the CoronaVirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant." In February, he referred to the Democrats' "new hoax," leaving it unclear whether he was referring to the response or the virus itself, according to CNN.
On March 10, the day before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic, Trump told Americans to "Just stay calm. It will go away," according to CNN. The president also compared the virus to the flu in an attempt to downplay the situation, although Fauci told Congress on March 11 that the mortality rate is "10 times" that of the flu's 0.1%.
Trump downplayed claims that he had changed his approach to the pandemic recently, claiming that he had "always viewed it as very serious." On March 5, Trump claimed that the virus had only hit the US "three weeks ago," while the first confirmed case in the country was reported on January 21, over six weeks before that statement.
The uncertainty and contradictory messages have been published concerning testing as well. In New York City, an allergy practice told their patients in an email that all testing was being done through local emergency departments, but, hours later, sent an additional email saying that patients should call their primary care provider to be screened first, apologizing for the confusion.
While Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar claimed on March 6 that there is no testing kit shortage, Vice President Mike Pence warned, "We don't have enough tests today to meet what we anticipate will be the demand going forward," according to CNN.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may have harmed the country's ability to track and detect the spread of the COVID-19 disease due to a series of missteps, including refusing to use the tests recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), according to ProPublica.
As the virus began to spread, the CDC decided to start creating its own, more complicated test instead of using the test guidelines provided by the WHO. The test was made to check for a variety of different viruses. When the test was sent to labs across the country, it didn't work and falsely flagged the presence of other viruses in harmless samples.
Testing for coronavirus was further inhibited by restrictive CDC testing criteria, which limited tests only to symptomatic patients who recently traveled to China. The guidelines have since been updated.
"In some places, at least, there’s an advice vacuum and that leaves a lot of people trying to figure out what’s available and what to do," said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a former federal and state health official who is now vice dean for public health practice and community engagement for the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, to ProPublica.
Some US officials have been reluctant or even refused to recognize the severity of the situation.
While Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, dodged questions on Fox News about the availability of ventilators in the US, Fauci told ABC's "This Week" that the federal ventilator stockpile may not be enough in a situation with a lot of cases.
Trump promised recently that he would "slash red tape like nobody has even done it before" in order to get unapproved coronavirus treatments to patients faster. Health officials responded with alarm, according to Politico.
"Wow, that is bad advice from President Trump. Lives can be saved if red tape is cut in terms of making tests, respirators, and hospital beds more available. Making untested antivirals available is not a good strategy," said Diana Zuckerman, a drug safety expert at the National Center for Health Research, according to Politico.
Sen. Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned a small group of constituents at a luncheon last month that the novel coronavirus is "probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic." The pandemic referred to is commonly known as the Spanish Influenza pandemic.
"There's one thing that I can tell you about this: It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history," said Burr in the recording obtained by NPR. The senator also raised the possibility of the military being mobilized to fight the outbreak.
Despite the strong comments made during the private luncheon, Burr never made such comments in his public comments about the outbreak.
One practice that has been agreed upon as the best way to "flatten the curve" of the rise of coronavirus cases is "social distancing." Many countries affected by the virus have restricted movement and closed non-essential businesses, while encouraging people to keep their distance from others. The US is playing catch up, as some states have begun to implement such measures in recent days. No such measures have been declared on a federal level.