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As pandemic information from U.S. agencies became politicized, cable TV doctors stepped up in major way | COMMENTARY

Baltimore's Dr. Leana Wen is among the medical professionals who stepped up to provide accurate and helpful information regarding the pandemic, as government sources grew increasingly politicized.
Baltimore's Dr. Leana Wen is among the medical professionals who stepped up to provide accurate and helpful information regarding the pandemic, as government sources grew increasingly politicized. (Julio Cortez/AP)

With President-elect Joe Biden calling the pandemic “one of the most important battles our administration will face” as he unveiled a new COVID-19 advisory board Monday, the prospects for citizens getting better health information in this moment of crisis improved considerably. Mr. Biden promised to “follow the science” as he filled the panel with first-rate scientific and public health professionals.

But Vice President Mike Pence also reconvened the controversial White House Coronavirus Task Force Monday, which had not met for weeks. And if that panel stays true to form, it will deliver more misinformation and bad advice on a virus that has killed more than 238,000 Americans. And that would mean more confusion for citizens about everything from reopening schools to whether it is safe to get together with grandparents or grandchildren for Thanksgiving. Sadly, it will also mean more death as well.

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That kind of confusion is why I have come to so value the medical doctors and public health experts like Dr. Vin Gupta on MSNBC and Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Dr. Leana Wen on CNN. I have watched hundreds of appearances by them on cable TV the last eight months and have found their analyses and advice consistently informed by science and always easy to understand.

An example of that clarity can be found in Dr. Vin Gupta’s response to a question from MSNBC “The 11th Hour” host Brian Williams who asked him Nov. 6 what viewers can do to bring the soaring numbers of infections and deaths down.

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Upgrade from a cloth mask to a three-ply surgical mask, reconsider any Thanksgiving plans where you are gathering in home, and be wary of getting on a plane no matter how protected you think you are, he said.

He went on to explain all three points, adding the visual of what a three-ply mask looked like.

“Cloth mask is good, but this is better,” he said holding up the mask.

And none of these three duck when the host asks for their thoughts on some of the more dangerous advice or choices promoted by the White House.

When Dr. Sanjay Gupta was asked about Mr. Trump favoring Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist and advocate of herd immunity, over Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, CNN’s chief medical correspondent said the president had clearly gone “doctor shopping," looking for someone with an M.D. who would agree with his highly unscientific view of the pandemic.

Criticizing or contradicting government health experts is not something any of the experts expected or wanted to be doing, Dr. Wen said in an interview this week. She herself was a government health official as Baltimore City Health Commissioner from 2014 to 2018. But never in the last century has U.S. government information so politicized and corrupted as it has by Mr. Trump during this crisis.

“This is certainly not where any of us would have expected to be,” Dr. Wen said. “Who would have thought in the middle of public health crisis public health experts were not only not allowed to lead the response, but they were actively muzzled in their attempts to do so?”

Dr. Wen lamented the early loss of daily briefings on the pandemic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“At the very beginning of the pandemic, we were hearing from the CDC every day," she said. “But at a certain point when something was said that apparently the White House did not like, they stopped those briefings altogether.”

She also noted how changes were being made in the “dark of the night” on the CDC website to agency recommendations and guidelines.

“That led to mass confusion," she said. “And that did great harm to the public health response, because public health depends on the public’s trust. … And that trust is eroded every time there is disagreement among our top leaders. ... People are left wondering who they should believe, especially in this country that is so highly polarized.”

History will not look kindly on the way President Trump politicized the pandemic and used his powerful White House platform to offer citizens information so bad it could literally kill them. But we can’t wait for the verdict of history with more than a thousand Americans dying on some days. We desperately need sound information now, and so far, the doctors of cable TV have served us far better than our government.

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

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