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Blame for confusion and misinformation on COVID-19 goes beyond Trump and Fox News | COMMENTARY

President Donald Trump speaks at a news conference about the coronavirus, as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, listen, at the White House in Washington, April 16, 2020.
President Donald Trump speaks at a news conference about the coronavirus, as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, listen, at the White House in Washington, April 16, 2020. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

I would like to blame all the confusion, misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19 on President Donald Trump and his political lackeys like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and media puppets like Fox News and Breitbart News. God knows they deserve it and then some.

But that’s not enough. While Mr. Trump and enablers in the Republican Party and the media are clearly at the core of the problem, we are at a point where others in our information ecosystem also need to look in the mirror and ask themselves if they have done and are doing enough to give their fellow citizens the information needed to help us stem and survive this pandemic.

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That includes public health officials and medical experts who have been interacting with the media since things turned deadly on a major scale in March. The need for clear, easy-to-understand information has perhaps never been greater than it is now with the runaway infection rate and hospitalization in Southern and Western states sending the nation into what some doctors termed a “free fall” this week.

But the need has been life and death since March. And all sorts of people have failed to rise to the challenge.

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I have been feeling this way for months, but the tipping point came this week.

Sunday on CNN, Dr. Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, repeatedly refused to correct or even question Mr. Trump’s patently false claim over the weekend that 99% of virus cases are “totally harmless.”

On her third try to get an answer, host Dana Bash said, “I just have to ask you flatly, to that end, to protect Americans, is the president wrong?”

“So, I’m not going to get into who’s right and who’s wrong,” he responded. “What I’m going to say, Dana, is what I’ve said before: It’s a serious problem ... People need to take it seriously.” He said viewers should follow guidelines from the CDC and the task force headed by Vice President Mike Pence.

Yeah, those CDC guidelines and the fine, fine work of Mr. Pence’s task force, which have been so successful in bringing the pandemic under control. Sure, let’s just keep following that while tens of thousands more of us get sucked into a spiral of death.

Dr. Hahn’s response was disgusting, and it was even more shameful that it came from a medical doctor.

I was still seething Monday, when I heard comedian D.L. Hughley on MSNBC talking about what he took away from his bout with COVID-19, which was only diagnosed after he passed out onstage at a comedy club last month.

“There is no centralized” source of information “telling people what to do,” he said, lamenting what he called an “ad hoc approach” to guidance on dealing with the pandemic. “It varies from city to city ... You have to wear a mask here, but you don’t have to wear it there ... Everybody is kind of running on their own theory ... People are dying right now, and I never saw it more starkly in my life, from lack of leadership.”

Mr. Hughley was giving voice to the same anger I have been feeling about the lack of sound medical information.

The one thing we know to be true about COVID-19 is that masks help mitigate the spread of the virus. So, why is it only now that we are starting to get a powerful media messaging consensus on wearing them? Why weren’t health officials pounding home that message in the media since March? And why weren’t medical and public health officials crystal clear that Mr. Trump was dangerously wrong in not wearing a mask and that people who emulated him were putting their lives and the lives of others in danger?

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is widely and rightfully admired. But every time he, Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, or Dr. Robert R. Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stood behind Mr. Trump the last four months and remained silent as the president lied about the virus, they lent him credibility.

That’s one of the ways Mr. Trump used them on-screen to sow confusion about the virus.

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It is time for everyone in the field of public health to stand up and speak medical truth directly to Mr. Trump’s political power before more Americans die. It should have happened months ago.

David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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