SOMERSET, KY — On Tuesday, February 25, when there were just 14 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases , a unit of the Centers for Disease Control, participated in a news conference during which she delivered an accurate and disturbing projection about what was occurring.
The consequences of the virus’s spread, she said, “may seem overwhelming and disruption to everyday life may be severe.” She added, “It’s not a question of if this will happen, but when this will happen, and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses.” She talked to her children about the virus that morning. “While I didn’t think they were at risk right now, we as a family ought to be preparing for significant disruption to our lives.”
President Trump was in India that week, avoiding the coming calamity in his home country and furious with the CDC’s candor. Trump assessed the coronavirus as “very well under control” in the United States and that “the situation will start working itself out.”
After TV newsrooms and the great American newspapers disseminated Dr. Messonnier’s warning, the president ordered White House spokesman Judd Deere to issue this statement: “Unfortunately what we are seeing today is a political effort by the left and some in the media to distract and disturb the American people with fearful rhetoric and palace intrigue.”
Trump also dispatched financial analyst and former Fox News host Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, to issue this statement: “We have contained this. We have contained this. I won’t say airtight, but pretty close to airtight. I don’t think it’s going to be an economic tragedy at all. ”
Nancy Messonnier has not been heard from again.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who’s become the lead scientist mapping and explaining the administration’s strategy on COVID-19, has not been silenced nor sidelined. And because Dr. Fauci possessed the political skills and finesse, along with the scientific expertise to understand the dimensions of the threat, the country is likely to eventually recognize him as one of the foremost heroes in U.S. history.
A world-class researcher who’s directed NIAID since the mid-1980s, Dr. Fauci led the government’s work on AIDS, SARS, Anthrax, and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. He manages to command the director’s office of a $5-plus billion federal health research agency because he also understands Washington.
He clearly received the message about dealing with the self-absorbed, ticklish, child president that America elected almost four years ago. Think of all the career professionals inside the White House and in federal agencies who got bounced out of government for getting sideways with Trump. Lord, he replaced his chief of staff on March 7, as the vector of COVID-19 cases began its precipitous climb.
Two days after Dr. Messonnier’s warning, Dr. Fauci attended a meeting of the coronavirus task force chaired by Vice President Mike Pence. Alarmed by the president’s scientifically inaccurate assertions that the virus was no more dangerous than the flu and that the country had the disease contained — “I think it’s an incredible achievement what our country’s done,” the president said — Dr. Fauci described for reporters how seriously he viewed the threat, but in language that did not directly challenge Trump. He said, “This virus has adapted extremely well to the human species” and that it appeared to have a higher mortality rate than influenza.
Yet even with those carefully chosen words, Dr. Fauci informed his colleagues that he received a call from the White House not to say another word without “clearance.” Though he was plainly being muzzled, he denied that fact when the New York Times called. He later explained that, “You should never destroy your own credibility. And you don’t want to go to war with a president. But you’ve got to walk the fine balance of making sure you continue to tell the truth.”
“I don’t think that we are going to get out of this completely unscathed,” he told Politico on March 3. “I think that this is going to be one of those things we look back on and say boy, that was bad.”
Today is March 17, and 5,702 Americans have tested positive; 94 have lost their fight against the deadly virus. Dr. Fauci is the visible, calming, trusted scientific voice on COVID-19, called on by Congress to deliver candid assessments, invited to stand by the president at every news conference now to offer insights and perspective on the crisis. Dr. Fauci and his colleagues at the CDC this week finally broke through to project that COVID-19 cases and deaths will peak in mid-May, and not subside until August.
Americans alive today have never been in this place.
The president’s fabricating, insane dithering, and political calculations hurt us badly. Always remember that on February 28, in a signature Trump cult rally in South Carolina he called the coronavirus the Democrats’ “new hoax.” Always remember that Fox News, Senate and House Republicans, and Trump’s administration toadies backed that terrible lie. Always remember that the first COVID-19 American death occurred two days prior on February 26.
Dr. Fauci understood that a credible scientific voice had to navigate the hazardous and bizarre messages coming from the president and his minions, and elevate to a senior post in the country’s management of the most serious assault on the United States in our lifetime. There are so many heroes in this challenge — doctors, nurses, medical personnel, frontline security people, airline pilots and flight attendants, transportation workers, supermarket stockers, delivery people, cooks and shopkeepers, sports league commissioners and mayors and governors.
Tony Fauci is one of the courageous people. He told the truth. More to the point, he got the president and the country to listen.
— Keith Schneider