LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts on Friday defended the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by former President Donald Trump amid criticism from a local health authority that thousands more people died because the former president downplayed the seriousness of the virus and didn't do enough to encourage precautions.
Dr. James Lawler of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security told The World-Herald that he particularly faulted Trump for politicizing the wearing of face masks, and for holding large political rallies that served the expose thousands to COVID-19.
But Ricketts, a Republican who has been a consistent supporter of Trump, said he "disagreed 100%" with the assessment by Lawler, who is regarded as a national expert on pandemics.
"I believe it was Dr. (Anthony) Fauci who originally said 'Don't wear masks,'" Ricketts said, referring to a chief medical advisor to Trump. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also said originally that mask wearing wasn't recommended, the governor said, before changing their position.
"I don't think it's fair to blame that on President Trump," he said.
Ricketts credited Trump for taking action at the beginning of the pandemic in March to advise restrictions on gatherings to no more than 10 people, and for taking steps to restrict airline travel from countries with high levels of infections.
When asked about Trump's recorded statement, to reporter Bob Woodward, that he had intentionally downplayed the seriousness of the virus in public statements to avoid "a panic," the governor said that the president's imposition of the 10-person rule demonstrated that he took the virus seriously.
Ricketts, who attended the inauguration of President Joe Biden on Wednesday, said the incoming president "struck the right tone" in calling for national unity.
"I hope he uses his influence on Congress, because they're not going in that direction," Ricketts said, noting that the Senate is moving ahead with impeachment proceedings against President Trump.
He added that he disagreed with the filing of ethics violations by Senate Democrats on Friday against GOP Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri for lending "legitimacy" to the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
"That would seem to me to create more divisiveness than healing or unity," Ricketts said.