Health experts outraged by Trump’s response to contracting COVID-19

President Donald Trump’s cavalier attitude toward his COVID-19 diagnosis has alarmed infectious disease experts, who fear that the president is spreading false and dangerous information about the illness that has killed more than 210,000 Americans and infected over 7 million.

On Tuesday, just a day after returning to the White House from a military hospital where he received a mixture of experimental treatments over the weekend, Trump fired off a series of social media posts that downplayed the severity of COVID-19. He wrongfully repeated the claim that the disease is less lethal than the seasonal flu.

“It’s very real. It’s very concerning. Giving a message that says ‘don’t worry about this’ is just wrong,” said Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of the Department of Medicine at UCSF, during a roundtable discussion conducted virtually on Tuesday afternoon.

Trump also confirmed that he plans to attend next week’s debate against former Vice President Joe Biden in Miami, even though he is still sick. “It will be great!” he tweeted Tuesday.

The president has flouted virtually every public health measure that experts consider critical to containing the virus. In doing so, he is undermining months-long efforts by public health officials to get members of the public to wear masks and practice social distancing, local infectious disease experts say.

“It’s very discouraging to witness this public spectacle as an infectious disease doctor because you’re trying to persuade the rest of the world to do these hard things like wear masks,” said Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease doctor and researcher with UCSF.

Since announcing his positive diagnosis, Trump took a car ride with Secret Service agents outside of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Sunday to wave to his supporters. On Monday evening, the president returned to the White House and dramatically removed his mask before entering the Blue Room, where several aides were waiting.

He was likely infectious during both instances.

“Don’t be afraid of it,” Trump said, in a video released later that day. “You’re going to beat it. We have the best medical equipment, we have the best medicines.”

A Cornell University study of 38 million media mentions about the pandemic concluded that Trump “is the world’s largest source of misinformation about COVID-19.”

Over the weekend, Trump was airlifted to Walter Reed, in Bethesda, Md., where he was treated with experimental antibodies and antiviral drugs and prescribed an aggressive course of steroids.

One of the doses of the antibody cocktails he was given is made by the pharmaceutical firm Regeneron. The company’s chief executive, Dr. Leonard S. Schleifer, is a member of Trump’s golf club in Westchester County. His company provided the drug under the FDA’s compassionate use protocols.

“This is not happening elsewhere,” said Dr. Annie Luetkemeyer, an infectious disease specialist at UCSF who is conducting trials for COVID-19 treatments.

Despite Trump’s assertion that COVID-19 is “less lethal,” influenza has resulted in far fewer yearly deaths than the president claims.The flu kills between 12,000 and 61,000 annually in the U.S., since 2010, according to the CDC.

His claims of recovery may also be premature. COVID often worsens for patients weeks after diagnosis.

“We know three days of stability does not get you out of the woods.” said UCSF’s Wachter.

In the months prior to his diagnosis, the Trump administration hosted large gatherings without following social distancing or masking protocols, including the White House event on Sept. 26 to announce the nomination of conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, which more than 150 of his political allies attended.

So far, at least 11 people who attended the ceremony in the Rose Garden have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the New York Times.

“Very directly, it undermines the emphasis on the important value of the mask in preventing transmission of the virus,” said Dr. Michael Matthay, a critical care specialist at UCSF. “It’s the opposite message of what CDC Director Robert Redfield testified to Congress two weeks ago about how the mask is our best defense against the virus until we get a reliable and safe vaccine.”

Public health experts say 1 million deaths worldwide are among the reasons to be concerned, if not fearful, and take everyday precautions against the coronavirus — despite rosy advice from the still-recovering Trump who is telling them not to be afraid of it. With just a small percentage of Americans so far infected, the vast majority are still at risk.

“I’m very humbled by COVID-19,” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at UCSF. “It’s not a walk in the park, even if you survive.”

Countering President Trump’s insistence that people should not “be afraid of COVID-19,” Mark Ghaly, the California health secretary, said Tuesday that it’s a “serious illness” that has claimed many lives in California and the nation.

“It’s just an opportunity to remind us that all the tools we have are important” to continue emphasizing, he said. Those include wearing masks, maintaining social distance, avoiding crowds and washing hands as proven ways to deter transmission, “guided by data, guided by science, guided by the lessons of the past.”

Of the pillars of infection control, the White House has relied primarily on regular testing to contain the virus, which discounts the period between a person becoming infected and showing a positive, according to the experts.

“Tests alone are not enough to control the coronavirus,” said Chaz Langelier, a professor of medicine and infectious disease at UCSF.

What concerns health care professionals most is that the president’s approach to the pandemic has bolstered some who already viewed medical advice about the virus with skepticism.

Sheri Allen, who runs a small telecommunications sales business in Atascadero, said she does not trust Western medicine or doctors. She believes they are “quacks” trying to pump Americans full of medicine that does not work to benefit pharmaceutical companies.

Before the pandemic, Allen considered herself apolitical. But after Trump refused to order a national lockdown or mask mandate this spring, she became highly active on Twitter downplaying the coronavirus. Allen said Trump “got over it in two days,” showing that the risks of the virus were not as severe as portrayed.

“We can come back from major illnesses and this is a minor illness,” she said. “It’s just got great marketing.”

The experts worry that line of thinking could help perpetuate the spread of COVID-19.

“This is a very serious disease that is not influenza, that is not a common cold,” said Luetkemeyer “Just because some people do well, I do not let my guard down.”

San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writers Alexei Koseff and Tatiana Sanchez contributed to this story.

Aidin Vaziri and Catherine Ho are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email:

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