A pandemic expert from the University of Nebraska Medical Center welcomed a chance to reset the nation’s COVID-19 response under new President Joe Biden and sharply criticized Donald Trump, saying the outgoing president undermined public health guidance and cost thousands of lives.
Dr. James Lawler, a manager at UNMC’s Global Center for Health Security, particularly faulted the messages Trump sent by politicizing masks, downplaying the severity of the pandemic and holding large rallies.
It all suggested to the public, Lawler said, that the pandemic was overblown and that social distancing measures designed to control the virus amounted to unnecessary infringements on people’s lives.
“The result of that is we have 400,000 dead Americans,” Lawler said in an interview with The World-Herald. “It didn’t need to be this way.”
If the president had instead used his voice and the presidential bully pulpit to urge Americans to heed public health advice, Lawler said, it could have made “a huge difference.”
Just before leaving for Florida on Wednesday, Trump praised his administration’s efforts to control what he called “the China virus,” particularly noting Operation Warp Speed, the drive to accelerate vaccine development.
Striking tones he rarely has during the pandemic, Trump also cautioned Americans to be “very, very careful” of the virus and expressed sympathy for virus victims and their families.
“We want to pay great love, great love to all of the people that have suffered, including families who have suffered so gravely,” he said.
The former administration had previously said that Trump’s actions significantly reduced U.S. deaths from an early forecast under one model of as many as 2.2 million.
Lawler, a Navy veteran whose military career included White House assignments dealing with biodefense, pandemic response and health preparedness, lauded the federal effort to speed the development of vaccines. He said those vaccines, whether developed privately or with federal assistance, are showing “fantastic” efficacy in fighting COVID-19.
But Lawler faulted the Trump administration for not having a more robust plan to get the vaccine into the arms of Americans.
The administration largely left it to state and local public health officials to solve a major logistical challenge, one that they are not trained for, Lawler said.
He said the U.S. military has significant logistical expertise that could have been brought to bear, and he thinks that other strategies could be explored to speed vaccinations.
“We’ve given this task to a group of professionals who don’t have the skill set to execute it,” he said. “I wouldn’t look to myself to repair a car, and I wouldn’t look to my public health colleagues to solve a complex logistical problem. We need professional logisticians to solve this problem.”
It’s not too late for Biden to change America’s course on vaccination efforts, Lawler said, as there is still a long way to go.
As of Wednesday, some 17 million shots had been administered. It’s estimated that it will take 250 million Americans getting two shots — half a billion total shots — before the nation can achieve “herd immunity,” halting the wide spread of the virus.
Since taking over on Wednesday, Biden has pledged a “full-scale, wartime” response to the pandemic.
The president has set a goal of vaccinating 100 million Americans in his administration’s first 100 days. Since vaccinations began, the nation has been averaging about 450,000 a day, though recent figures have been higher than that. Exactly how Biden expects to ramp up the vaccination effort is unclear.
The beefed-up COVID-19 response includes an effort to change the messaging.
With no legal authority to impose a national mask mandate, Biden instead issued a “100 Days Masking Challenge” — asking Americans to wear masks for 100 days to slow the spread of the virus. He also issued an order requiring the wearing of masks in federal buildings and by federal employees.
Lawler said he would like to see more advocacy from the new administration on the safety of the vaccine, so that fewer people refuse to take it. He’s also hopeful that Biden will let science and health experts guide the national response in a way that’s unfettered by politics.
The U.S. has recorded more coronavirus deaths than any nation in the world, almost twice as many as No. 2 Brazil. It ranks near the top among developed nations in deaths per capita, trailing only Belgium, Italy and the United Kingdom. Neighboring Canada’s death rate is less than half that of the U.S.
In late February, before the pandemic had come to Nebraska, Lawler gave Omaha-area school superintendents a briefing on the deadly virus that was spreading across Europe. Based on what was known at the time, Lawler predicted that 480,000 Americans would lose their lives within a year.
Now with over 400,000 deaths and roughly 4,000 more dying each day, the U.S. is on pace to exceed that figure. He said his forecast had assumed “a relatively unmitigated epidemic.”
“Unfortunately, that’s what we’ve got,” he said. “I had hoped that we would be able to respond with much more unity of action. Unfortunately, the U.S. has recorded the most deaths of any country precisely because we were unable to approach the response with unity of effort and with a coherent strategy.”
Lawler said he will never understand why Trump often chose to downplay the virus and to politicize masks and other “nonpharmaceutical interventions” such as avoiding crowds and close contact.
Trump often appeared in public without wearing a mask and held campaign events with thousands of supporters, many of them maskless.
In October, the president himself became infected and was hospitalized with the virus. After spending three nights in the hospital, Trump compared COVID-19 to the flu, saying Americans would learn to live with the new virus.
“All of these things were verbal or visual cues that indicated that the public health interventions that we had been preaching were not important or were unnecessary,” Lawler said. “It fueled this conspiracy theory that the pandemic was intentionally overblown and that this information was designed to control people’s lives.”
Wearing masks became an ideological issue, which Lawler called “one of the tragedies” of the pandemic.
After Trump lost his reelection bid in November, he made few pronouncements relative to the pandemic at all.
“He obviously had kind of checked out of the pandemic business a long time ago,” Lawler said. “But silence was an improvement over what was essentially constantly undermining public health.”