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Where have all the doctors gone? Medical opinion is taking a back seat as economic worries mount | COMMENTARY

In this April 17, 2020, file photo, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence listen as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. The Trump administration’s leading health experts on safely dealing with the novel coronavirus will be testifying in a Senate hearing by a videoconference after three of them and the committee's chairman were exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)
In this April 17, 2020, file photo, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence listen as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. The Trump administration’s leading health experts on safely dealing with the novel coronavirus will be testifying in a Senate hearing by a videoconference after three of them and the committee's chairman were exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File) (Alex Brandon/AP)

Nothing better illustrates the divergent forces at work in crafting the nation’s response to the coronavirus outbreak than how certain individuals have responded to COVID-19 exposure. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has recently embraced a form of self-quarantine because he came into contact with an individual who tested positive. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Stephen M. Hahn and Dr. Robert Redfield of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have elected to self-quarantine for the same reason as well. And what about Vice President Mike Pence whose own press secretary was diagnosed Friday? He traveled to Iowa the same day to attend a public meeting with food industry executives during which neither he nor they wore masks. On Monday, he was apparently back at work in the White House electing not to self-isolate as others have done in similar circumstances.

But whether or not Mr. Pence sets a good example to the public (he doesn’t, obviously) is beside the point. Dr. Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, the high-profile medical experts on the White House’s coronavirus task force, have been doing a pretty good imitation of working out of public view for the past two weeks through no fault of their own. Long gone are those daily briefings where one, or usually both, would provide the nation with their wise counsel. There have been no task force briefings, and President Donald Trump even briefly flirted with the idea of disbanding the group. The focus now is on loosening stay-at-home restrictions, and the physicians are likely perceived as wholly unhelpful to that cause. They might observe, for example, that some governors aren’t following recommended best practices and moving too quickly to spur their floundering economies at a cost of thousands of American lives.

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Or they might once again note that the United States doesn’t have sufficient testing capability. Or that this sudden uptick in coronavirus exposure within the White House itself demonstrates the risk of transmission remains high under the tightest of security regimes; one of Mr. Trump’s personal valets, in addition to Pence spokeswoman Katie MIller, tested positive. Or that the latest modeling suggests there will be 137,000 deaths by August as loosened restrictions cause the virus to transmit more widely. These are inconvenient facts for anyone who is more focused on restarting the nation’s economy sufficiently to get himself reelected. How much easier to pursue a policy of open nail salons, gyms and dining rooms if one doesn’t have to contemplate the human cost of that in the middle of the worst public health crisis in a century or so.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with considering the ramifications of an extended lockdown including its cost to human health and longevity. These are not easy choices. In Maryland, for example, Gov. Larry Hogan may soon be announcing an easing of restrictions as hospitalization numbers have stabilized for nearly two weeks. But it would be absurd to imply that choice holds no risk. It does, and it needs to be weighed. Similarly, denying Dr. Fauci and other medical experts a place at the White House podium won’t make the facts go away.

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It is beyond tiresome that President Trump and his top aides formulate coronavirus policy much like a cow wandering down a hillside eventually wears down a path that zigs and zags and loops back on itself. The outbreak is serious, and it isn’t. Testing is available, or it won’t be. The president sets the policy, or it’s the governors. Federal guidelines are important, or protesters are correct that they are unbearable. There simply isn’t a position this White House hasn’t taken at some point over the past three months no matter how it contradicts past statements. Someone tie a bell around that president’s neck.

All we ask is one simple thing: Put the doctors back on the front line. Americans will surely settle for a Zoom chat to accommodate the self-quarantines. Stop soft-selling us on infection rates and deaths. There are tough choices ahead, but they don’t become any easier if we stop paying attention to the public health experts and listen only to the bean-counters. The good news is that there’s been some success in bending the infection curve; now is not the time to abandon a strategy that works merely because some of the president’s most clamorous supporters are protesting restrictions.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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