This year’s flu season is severe. All but a handful of states are experiencing widespread flu outbreaks. As of last week, the flu and pneumonia are causing one in 10 deaths in America. Yet the White House has been largely silent about it.
President Donald Trump fired off more than a dozen tweets over the weekend, quoting Fox News segments, attacking the “Fake News Media,” and worrying about “due process” for accused abusers and sexual harassers. No mention of the 2018 flu season.
Of course, President Trump can’t cure the flu. Nor can be he faulted that this year the flu has been deadly, as it has in years past. But he could tell people to get a flu shot and wash their hands — as past presidents have done.
When the bird flu threatened a global spread in 2005, President George W. Bush mapped out a plan to combat the pandemic and keep it from reaching the United States. And when faced with the swine flu in 2009, President Barack Obama drew from Bush’s playbook in his administration’s response. Both presidents also spoke about their efforts publicly — Bush delivered a speech at the National Institutes of Health to put minds at ease and discuss measures for prevention, and Obama went as far as to enlist Elmo as part of its anti-flu campaign.
This year, up to 4,000 Americans are dying from the flu and pneumonia per week. But Trump hasn’t been telling people to sneeze into their elbows or speaking about a plan to fight the virus.
“We haven’t seen that from the White House, which considering the number of American lives at stake, it’s really somewhat astonishing,” said Wendy Parmet, a professor of health policy at Northeastern University. “They have been remarkably invisible on this.”
Trump’s predecessors stepped up to the plate on public health risks
When H1N1, commonly known as the swine flu, became an international pandemic in 2009, the Obama administration launched a campaign to help Americans figure out what to do, ease their minds, and hopefully slow the illness’s spread. The US declared a public health emergency in April of that year; the president delivered a broadcast address and asked Congress for funding.
In September of the same year, Obama delivered a statement in the Rose Garden with advice on how to prevent the spread of the swine flu: wash your hands, sneeze into your sleeve, etc. “I don’t want anybody to be alarmed, but I do want everybody to be prepared,” he said. Three Obama administration departments launched a public service campaign about the flu featuring Sesame Street’s Elmo.
The White House sent out a press release in December 2009 advertising the president and first lady getting vaccinated as proof H1N1 shots were safe. “Michelle and I just got the shots ourselves,” he said in a radio interview at the time. “We wanted to make sure nationwide that children were getting it before adults did. And now there’s enough vaccine so that adults should get it as well.”
When the bird flu hit Asia in 2005 and threatened to spread to the United States, the Bush administration laid out a full-fledged strategy for detecting and containing the problem, to keep it from coming to the United States — which did not occur — and to have a plan for what to do if it did spread. (The Obama administration’s response to the swine flu was largely based on the Bush team’s bird flu response.)
Bush delivered a speech in 2015 at the National Institutes of Health to outline his plan and push Congress to act. “Leaders at every level of government have a responsibility to confront dangers before they appear and engage the American people in the best course of action,” he said. “It is vital that our nation discuss and address the threat of pandemic flu now.”
In his reelection bid the year prior, Bush and Democratic candidate John Kerry traded shots over a potential looming flu vaccine shortage. At a Florida campaign stop, he assured worried retirees “we have millions of vaccines doses on hand for the most vulnerable Americans.”
Trump sends a lot of tweets. You’d think one could be about the flu.
The Trump administration’s handling of this year’s dangerous flu season has included some missteps and missed opportunities.
The first picks for leadership of the Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control were both forced out of their positions over scandal. Tom Price, Trump’s first pick for HHS secretary, stepped down in September after a series of reports about his use of private jets and some eyebrow-raising investments in health care companies while he was in Congress. (Price was photographed getting his flu shot soon before he stepped down.)
Price’s replacement, Alex Azar, was confirmed in late January. Brenda Fitzgerald, Trump’s CDC pick, stepped down last month after revelations she was buying tobacco stocks while at the CDC. Anne Schuchat, who first came to the CDC in 1988, has taken over as interim director.
“There has been remarkable turmoil around health issues and a vacuum of leadership in the health area,” Parmet said. “Public health prevention itself just does not seem like a priority for this administration.”
Despite obvious warning signs this year’s flu season might be severe, the CDC issued no unusual warning, noted New York Times health and science reporter Donald McNeil over the weekend. It also missed a public relations opportunity — the 100th anniversary of the 1918 Spanish flu and the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Hong Kong flu, both of which were very deadly.
Trump in a 2015 radio interview said he doesn’t really believe in flu shots, claiming he’d never had one. “I don’t like the idea of injecting bad stuff into your body,” he said. But the results of his physical exam by the White House doctor indicate the president is up to date on “his routine vaccinations, to include his seasonal influenza,” suggesting he did get his flu shot this year.
He’s made no fanfare of it, and it’s not like he doesn’t know how to. While he called for the US to close its borders — including to Americans — during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, he’s made no such pronouncements on the flu.
Gloria Copeland, a televangelist who advised Trump’s campaign, posted a video in January saying that flu season doesn’t exist and telling her followers to “inoculate yourself with the word of God.” Trump hasn’t said anything about it — the White House did not immediately return a request for comment on the president’s lack of engagement on the flu or Copeland. When Politico asked the White House about Copeland’s pray-away-the-flu comments, it directed flu-related inquiries to the CDC.
Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, told me the CDC has done its job this flu season. While the president saying he got a flu shot would be helpful, he said, it’s not critical. Instead, he cautioned that what will really be telling about the Trump administration’s handling of influenza moving forward is how it approaches funding for research on vaccines.
“We need to continue to support the Global Health Security Initiative, the CDC’s work around the world, and we need to clearly support in a major way the research and development of these new flu vaccines. They’re critical,” he said. “Otherwise, we’re going to keep having this problem come up over and over again with seasonal flu, and we’re going to be largely unprepared for a flu pandemic.”
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