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Attacks on Fauci breed public distrust — and that may prove deadly, Maryland poll shows | COMMENTARY

This combination of pictures created on July 13, 2020 shows President Donald Trump in Phoenix, Arizona, June 23, 2020 and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Washington, D.C. on April 29, 2020. President Trump considered firing Dr. Fauci but refrained from from this decision because of public perception.
This combination of pictures created on July 13, 2020 shows President Donald Trump in Phoenix, Arizona, June 23, 2020 and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Washington, D.C. on April 29, 2020. President Trump considered firing Dr. Fauci but refrained from from this decision because of public perception. (SAUL LOEB/Getty Images North America/TNS)

As far as historians can tell, neither Harry Truman nor Dwight Eisenhower ever called Dr. Jonas Salk a “disaster” even as the nation grappled with a poliovirus epidemic in the late 1940s and early 1950s that disabled about 35,000 Americans each year and forced the equivalent of lockdowns in the summer months. This may be why people readily accepted the earliest polio vaccine when it was declared safe and effective in 1955. But, oh, how the times have changed. President Donald Trump came out swinging at Dr. Anthony Fauci on Monday morning, describing the nation’s leading infectious disease expert as a disaster in a call with campaign staff that was made available to reporters. It was not the first example of the president disparaging Dr. Fauci, and it will likely not be the last given the physician’s tendency to respect science and facts and not bend them to serve Mr. Trump’s political purposes.

But this is no mere palace intrigue, no reality television show nor benign political tactic. This message has consequences. Recently, pollsters asked more than 1,000 Maryland residents how they felt about a possible coronavirus vaccine. Would they be willing to take it? Here was the stunning result: About half said “no,” according to the Goucher College Poll. Distrust of the federal response to the pandemic is running at a feverish level. And even in Maryland where medicine and public health represent a pillar of the economy (the Food and Drug Administration is headquartered just down U.S. 29 in White Oak, for heaven’s sake), people harbor doubts about the Trump administration’s standards for drug safety and efficacy.

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Of course, the attacks on Dr. Fauci, a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient who has served Democratic and Republican presidents alike, aren’t the only reason for the misgivings. There’s also the adverse impact of President Trump’s repeated misrepresentations about the coronavirus and his administration’s poor response to it. Clearly, it’s not respect for Dr. Fauci’s knowledge that has so far kept Mr. Trump from firing him, it’s the president’s understanding — articulated in that same Monday call — that it would be a political “bomb” to do so, given the immunologist’s popularity with the public. In other words, it’s not his IQ but his Q Score that keeps Dr. Fauci’s head off the chopping block.

Enough is enough. These digs, these slights, these broad misrepresentations of the issue as some kind of all-or-nothing conflict between a return to a complete lockdown and some half-baked notion that “herd immunity” will save the day — they all have a destructive effect on the public health community’s credibility at an exceptionally crucial moment.

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Meanwhile, lurking in the wings, is Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist by training and recent refugee from a conservative think tank whose anti-lockdown and skeptical-of-masks views appear to dovetail more neatly with Mr. Trump’s political needs. The more the president flirts with herd immunity manifestos from dubious sources, the more the nation’s public health community — and, far more importantly, the public’s health — will suffer. So far, the pandemic has cost more than 220,000 Americans their lives. It’s entirely possible that number could rise to 400,000 by year’s end, as a recent study forecast. Yet, the White House dithering continues.

Americans are willing to trust science. As Dr. Fauci himself noted in his “60 Minutes” interview that provoked the president’s latest diatribe, Mr. Trump was willing to put his life in the hands of top doctors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda. The problem is that Americans can’t trust the quackery coming out of the Oval Office. Fortunately, the cure for that particular ailment is just a trip to the voting booth (or completion of mail-in ballot) away.

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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