- Abdul El-Sayedphysician, epidemiologist and the former director of the Detroit Health Department.
- Monica Gandhiinfectious disease specialist, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and a division head at San Francisco General Hospital.
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump have tested positive for COVID-19. The announcement came early Friday morning, hours after Bloomberg News reported that Trump adviser Hope Hicks became ill during Trump’s Wednesday night rally in Duluth, Minnesota, and had to be quarantined aboard Air Force One on the return flight to Washington. Hicks went on to test positive for coronavirus early on Thursday, though the White House did not report her illness. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is also getting tested over fears that Trump may have infected him at Tuesday’s debate. We speak with Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, who says Trump and his inner circle regularly flouted safety precautions leading up to his positive COVID-19 test. “The problem with science is that if you try and mess with science, science always wins.” We also speak with infectious disease specialist Dr. Monica Gandhi.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s bring in Dr. Abdul El-Sayed. As you watch this play out, you’re both an epidemiologist, you’re head of — you were head of Detroit’s Health Department. You also ran for governor of Michigan. And you know the kind of pressure President Trump has put on Michigan not to have the kind of precautions that doctors like you have been advocating.
This isn’t the first time a staffer at the White House got sick. And this is now not just a staffer, but President Trump himself. Can you talk about the culture at the White House? I mean, what we’re hearing, that sometimes people wear a mask in the helicopter to Air Force One, but that on Air Force One people do not wear masks and that it is frowned upon, also at the White House, as well, which also puts enormous pressure on reporters in the White House, because they are wearing masks.
DR. ABDUL EL-SAYED: That’s right. This whole situation speaks to the treatment of the COVID-19 pandemic not as a serious contagious illness that has taken hold and infected millions of people around the country, killed 200,000 people. Instead, it’s been treated as a nuisance to politicize. And the White House, in keeping with that framing of COVID-19, has sought to downplay any of the interventions that you can use to keep viral transmission down, whether that is vilifying governors and city officials who either support mask mandates or lockdowns when transmission gets high enough, or it’s just modeling the poor behavior that we saw become such an issue just now.
And just as Dr. Gandhi spoke to, we don’t know how far this is going to go, because, of course, the upper reaches of government are highly interconnected. And so, you’re talking about people meeting with each other in the White House, where masking is limited, and potentially taking that to Capitol Hill, engaging with other folks, where, of course, folks do respect masks a little bit more. But all of this portends really poorly for the function of our government, let alone what it has said to the American people about masks, about lockdowns, about this pandemic for the past several months.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to talk about the various people at the White House that President Trump has been with. We’ve learned that the Pences have tested negative. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are — is that right? — because you can — of course, it takes sometimes days before you are to test positive when you have been exposed to someone with COVID-19. But President Trump and the first lady have tested positive.
Then you have the big events of this week. President Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett. There was a major event at the White House, outside. Hundreds of people were there. Most, including Amy Coney Barrett’s whole family, her seven children and others, and the Trump family, were not wearing masks. Now Judge Amy Coney Barrett has been going to the Congress every day to meet with mainly Republican senators, one after another after another. And she is shepherded around by White House staff. Among the White House staff members are President Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, who goes back and forth, you know, whether he’s negotiating on the coronavirus bill or dealing with Judge Barrett, to the White House.
All of these potential superspreading situations, if you can discuss this? Because if reporters weren’t contacted — you know, there’s not that many on Air Force One — and told, in a situation that was clearly a very closed environment — they weren’t told of what had been known many, many hours before, that they were on a flight with at least one COVID-infected person — now we know it was at least three, because President Trump and his wife tested positive. If you can talk about the significance of this?
DR. ABDUL EL-SAYED: Yeah, that’s right. So, let’s step back for a second and just appreciate the natural history of how this works. You know, from that time that you get infected, the virus has to replicate in your body to the point where you’re going to have enough in your nasopharynx that it’s going to show up on a test. And that can be anywhere from two days to five days. And five days is the average time when somebody might get symptoms.
So, the fact is, we don’t actually know how the chain of transmission works. We’re assuming that the president and his wife may have been infected by Hope Hicks. It’s possible that they were all infected by the same individual who is someone else. We just don’t know how this chain is working. But the point that you’re making is really important. You’ve got folks —
AMY GOODMAN: Or that the president might have infected Hope Hicks.
DR. ABDUL EL-SAYED: That’s right. That’s right. All of these are possible. We just don’t know how this works. And frankly, it’s going to take some really, really thoughtful contact tracing. All of that requires transparency. And there really hasn’t been any transparency. In fact, there are reports out of the White House that people were hoping that Hope Hicks’s diagnosis wasn’t going to become public and that they could just hide this from everyone else.
And so, contact tracing and public health require a very honest degree of transparency, such that everybody knows if they came in contact with somebody who may have infected them, so that they can do what they need to do to protect themselves and protect others. That’s clearly not happening here. And it’s good investigative journalistic work that’s forcing a lot of this information out.
But all of this is to say that you’re right: There is a tight network of transmission — people like Amy Coney Barrett, jumping from Senate office to Senate office trying to get confirmed; people like Mark Meadows, whose job it is, is to liaise with Congress all the time on legislation that’s pending; and all of the superspreader events that you just talked about, all of the travel that Donald Trump and his entourage have been taking over the course of this campaign — all the while — right? — trying to make a point about this pandemic being less than what we all know it is: a very serious public health tragedy that requires certain steps to protect yourself and protect others. And those just haven’t been followed, almost as a point of trying to bring it down.
And now we see, you know, if you — the problem with science — right? — is that if you try and mess with science, science always wins. And this is what’s happening right now. And so, we wish everyone a speedy recovery, but let’s be clear: The humanity that it takes to say that — right? — was not shown by this president or the people around him. And unfortunately, we’re seeing what the consequences are right now.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to President Trump speaking at a campaign rally in Ohio in September.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It affects elderly people, elderly people with heart problems and other problems. If they have other problems, that’s what it really affects. That’s it. You know, in some states, thousands of people, nobody young. Below the age of 18, like nobody. They have a strong immune system. Who knows? You look — you take your hat off to the young, because they have a hell of an immune system. But it affects virtually nobody. It’s an amazing thing.
AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can respond to that, Dr. El-Sayed? And also, you know, now President Trump has canceled his campaign rallies, for example, in Wisconsin, and we’re going to talk to the reporter John Nichols in Wisconsin. He was going ahead despite the fact that the positivity rate in Wisconsin is just going up and up. But what hasn’t been canceled, yes, or maybe on the broad — yet, maybe on the broadcast now that we’re doing it’s been canceled, is this one phone conversation that President Trump was going to hold today on COVID-vulnerable seniors. Talk about President Trump. He’s a senior. He’s 74. He’s obese. Talk about what are known as comorbidities.
DR. ABDUL EL-SAYED: Yeah. So, when we talk about this virus, we know that the virus hits real people, not abstract people, and real people have other things going on. And as you get older, the number of things that may be going on with your health that affect the way that the virus overall changes your health, they increase. And this is — to use his words, he is an elderly person with other problems — right? — including hypertension, high blood pressure, and his obesity. And both of those things portend poorly.
But the bigger picture of what he said — right? — is that “it affects virtually nobody.” And the fact of the matter is, 200,000 people are not nobody. And I would imagine that the president himself would agree that he’s not nobody. But he’s seeing what the consequences of that politicization of this virus is. And now he and, unfortunately, his family are dealing with what this looks like to be infected and have to watch your whole life come to a stop. And we don’t even know what the long-term course of his illness might be. And, of course, given just the statistics and the epidemiology of what we’ve seen in the past, it does not portend very well for him.
And as I said, we wish everyone who is sick with this disease and any disease a speedy recovery. But it requires us to step back and look at the inconsistency of what he has said and the inconsistency of how him and his party have behaved around this, and then step back and say, “Well, look, if it can happen to him, too, what does that mean about how we have been dealing with this all along, and what we should have been doing for all of these people who have both become sick and died and all of these people who have lost livelihoods because of it?”
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a tweet of a Bloomberg reporter. This is really interesting. It was tweeted by Jennifer Jacobs. She broke the Bloomberg story on Hope Hicks. And this is very important. The White House did not reveal this. And so, they did not reveal that she was sick with COVID-19 on the plane at night Wednesday and Thursday morning, before President Trump flew to Bedminster. So, the people who met him at Bedminster, his high donors, in a closed event of about a hundred people, they did not know. The people on the plane, and so often the concern about staffers who serve him, did not know that he had been exposed to COVID. But it’s not just Hope Hicks.
Jennifer Jacobs tweets, “Some of Trump’s closest aides sensed on WEDNESDAY that the president was feeling poorly. The president seemed exhausted, I’m told. Some chalked it up to fatigue from an intense campaign schedule, others began to worry he had the coronavirus.” This was on Wednesday, as he flew in a plane, knowing that Hope Hicks, one of his closest aides, had tested positive for COVID-19. What does that mean, to fly in a plane when you know you’ve been exposed to someone with active coronavirus, not to mention may not be feeling well himself?
DR. ABDUL EL-SAYED: I mean, frankly, this is — it’s unethical behavior. I mean, the minute you think you may be a conduit for someone else’s illness, you have a responsibility to declare that. And to fly on a plane with all of the people, all of the aides who are on that plane with you, thinking that it is a safe place to be, you knowing that you potentially could be ill and making them ill, that is an unethical thing to do. But it is also in keeping with the way that this president has dealt with this virus all along.
And then he gets off the plane, has a meeting in a closed-door area, where he is potentially knowingly exposing a whole bunch of his supporters to this. I mean, all of this speaks to just an unwillingness and, frankly, a moral failure around engaging this virus for what it is, keeping the people that he has sworn to serve safe, and recognizing how the science works around transmitting this disease among people. It’s unethical. Frankly, it’s immoral. And we’re seeing what the consequences are.
AMY GOODMAN: And I wanted to ask Dr. Gandhi — in July, Herman Cain, the former Republican presidential candidate, co-chair of Black Voices for Trump, he died at the age of 74, after a month-long battle with COVID-19. So, let’s then go back a month. Cain’s last public appearance came on June 20th, when he tweeted a photo of himself at Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 20th. Cain wore no mask at the event, which featured thousands of people packed tightly together. He tested positive for coronavirus 11 days after Trump’s rally, where campaign officials discouraged mask use and were filmed removing social distancing stickers inside the arena. And yet you have President Trump Tuesday night saying no one’s gotten sick at his rallies, as if he knows. Herman Cain died.
DR. MONICA GANDHI: Yeah. So, that was a terrible thing. And it was a terrible tragedy, because since we know how to prevent transmission and mitigate the impact of the illness, while we’re waiting for a vaccine, all of those principles should be in play. So, they’re social distancing, they’re hand hygiene, they’re ventilation if you can, and they’re universal masking. So, since none of that was at play, then an older man who was his supporter did get sick at his rally and subsequently died, which is the worst part about this, that people die. And so, I think that was a tragedy.
And so, now we have another situation where people could get very sick, because they’re older, they are — have comorbidities, and people weren’t being told that people are at risk, and then they’re in close quarters, and then there’s no masks.
So, I am going to — we’re all going to be watching with concern how many people get tested, how many people get appropriate contact tracing, and how people are treated now. And it’s going to be — you know, I would not — I would absolutely not hold this debate on October 15th, the next debate. That would not be right. And because it was a town hall, it was with others. He may not be infectious by then, but it’s still good practice to not — there needs to be a lot of work right now just focused on the illness.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Dr. Monica Gandhi, professor of medicine at UCSF, University of California, San Francisco, and San Francisco General Hospital, and Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, former director of the Detroit Health Department, author of the new book Healing Politics: A Doctor’s Journey into the Heart of Our Political Epidemic.
When we come back, we’ll be joined by Naomi Klein — she’s in British Colombia — and also John Nichols, who’s in Wisconsin, positivity rate going up, about how this news will impact the presidential race, also talk about the line of succession. Do you know who’s in line, if a president cannot perform their functions, from president to vice president to House speaker — in this case, Nancy Pelosi — to Senator Chuck Grassley? Stay with us.