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After Recklessness, a Coronavirus Outbreak at the White House; Will Admin Cover Up or Contract Trace?

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As President Trump and a growing number of prominent Republicans are infected with COVID-19, we speak with Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, who says Trump was reckless in his approach to the coronavirus and continues to flout public health recommendations. “There is an outbreak happening at the White House. It will continue to spread. It will not go away on its own,” says Dr. Jha. “The way you stop it is to test, trace and isolate.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, during a news conference on Sunday, a reporter asked White House physician Sean Conley about statements made by White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who directly contradicted him the day before.

REPORTER: Yesterday you told us that the president was in great shape, had been in good shape and fever-free for the previous 24 hours. Minutes after your press conference, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told reporters that the president’s vitals were very concerning over the past 24 hours. Simple question for the American people: Whose statements about the president’s health should we believe?

DR. SEAN CONLEY: So, the chief and I work side by side, and I think his statement was misconstrued. What he meant was that 24 hours ago, when he and I were checking on the president, that there was that momentary episode of the high fever and that temporary drop in the saturation, which prompted us to act expediently to move him up here. Fortunately, that was really a very transient, limited episode. A couple hours later, he was back up, mild again. You know, we could — I’m not going to speculate what that limited episode was about so early in the course, but he’s doing well.

AMY GOODMAN: It was painful to watch these two news conferences, both on Saturday and Sunday, with the level of evasiveness and misinformation.

Dr. Ashish Jha is with us now, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, previously the director of Harvard University’s Global Health Institute.

We welcome you back to Democracy Now!, Dr. Jha. And I was wondering if you can talk about the significance of what he was not telling the truth about, the osteopath, Dr. Sean Conley?

DR. ASHISH JHA: Yes. Good morning. Thank you for having me on.

You know, a lot of the information that came from Dr. Conley over this weekend was confusing. And I think, in general, he made things much worse than making them better. The evasiveness around information Saturday was a disaster, as a press conference. Yesterday was a bit better, but it was, you know, not that much better. And at this point, most people, I think, in this country are confused about the president’s medical condition, because of both inconsistency and evasiveness and a sense that we’re just not getting the full picture at all.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what about Dr. Conley, the personal physician for President Trump, saying he was just trying to be upbeat, so he didn’t want to tell the truth about getting oxygen, and what it means to get oxygen, why this is so significant? And go back to Thursday night, Friday morning, 1:00 in the morning Eastern Time. It’s announced that — President Trump announces he and the first lady have tested positive for COVID. And very soon after, he is going into — he has serious symptoms, which suggests that he did not just turn positive that night.

DR. ASHISH JHA: That’s right. So, look, the natural course of this disease, of course, varies from person to person. But typically what we see is, after somebody is infected, three to five days later they might turn positive, and a couple of days later they develop symptoms, if they are going to go on to develop symptoms.

And so, this is — again, the timeline here is very confusing. And when Dr. Conley on Saturday said it had been 72 hours, that puts him back to Wednesday as the day of diagnosis. So, there’s been a lot of clarification, a lot of back and forth. At this point I think we think he turned positive for the first time on Thursday and then had symptoms on Friday. But instead of guesswork, it would be helpful if the White House just came forward and gave us the basic data and facts, and I think that would be very helpful.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, we have no idea when he turned positive, because they won’t say when he last took a test before Thursday. Now it looks like on Tuesday, the Fox moderator, Chris Wallace, said, you know, as I just was saying to Jeff Mason, that Trump came too late to take a test. And reporters have reported that both on Wednesday and Thursday, when he flew to New Jersey for his fundraiser, that he was not looking good. He was tired. His voice was hoarse.

DR. ASHISH JHA: Yeah. You know, I mean, presidents have difficult schedules. They can get tired. Their voices can get hoarse. So we don’t know if those were symptoms of COVID. I mean, obviously, in retrospect, it sure is concerning that that is the case.

You know, one of the things that people bring up is that in a situation like this — again, he is a president. He’s allowed, obviously, some amount of privacy. But he is the president, and transparency is incredibly important to assure the American people.

All of this speculation and guesswork and kind of trying to read between the lines could be made to go away if the White House just released basic information about his testing history, about his symptom history, about his therapy history. None of this stuff would be difficult to pull together. I bet somebody could do it in about an hour. And we could put all the speculation to rest. And the fact that the White House is not doing that is creating a lot more speculation and unease and guesswork, and actually just frank-out rumormongering, than what would happen if they just came out and told us what was happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about what President Trump is getting right now. The only person we know that has gotten this combination of drugs, the experimental, investigational Regeneron cocktail — if you could explain what that is, immune-enhancing — then remdesivir and dexamethasone, which is extremely serious, not usually given to anyone but critically ill COVID patients, and he’s gotten one after another of these. What they are, first of all, Dr. Jha? And also, is this because he’s president of the United States, and they’re just hitting him with everything at once, because they have access to it and they can, or is it because he is critically ill?

DR. ASHISH JHA: Yeah. So, let’s talk about the three therapies, and then let’s talk about his particular treatment course. The three therapies, the experimental Regeneron monoclonal antibodies — antibodies, people understand, these are proteins that are made against viruses, against bacteria. And what we’ve done is, Regeneron and other companies have done, is created, in the lab, synthetic antibodies against the spike protein of the virus. And there’s good reason to believe that that’s going to be a useful therapeutic. It’s undergoing critical studies. We don’t know if it works or not, but, again, a lot of us are hopeful. But hope is not evidence. It’s just we’re hopeful. And —

AMY GOODMAN: About 260 people have taken this, right?

DR. ASHISH JHA: Yeah. And it seems, on that preliminary data, to may have been helpful. But we haven’t even seen the full data from those 260 people yet. We’ve seen a press release. And we need a lot more data on what has happened. But either way, it’s not unreasonable to give the president this experimental therapy. There are people who are getting it, and sometimes we do these things.

Remdesivir is an antiviral. It actually blocks the replication of the virus. And it has had some evidence of efficacy for this specific virus.

Dexamethasone, of course, is a steroid. And you use the steroid — the steroid is actually an immunosuppressant, and we tend to use the steroid for this disease in kind of later phases, because what we think is that there are two phases of this disease. There’s a viral phase, where the virus replicates and people get quite — some people get sick. And then there’s kind of an immunologic phase, where the immune system overreacts. And so, to deal with that second phase is when you use dexamethasone. It’s very rare to use all of this stuff together in one kind of over a two-day period. It is unusual.

I do have a little bit of a feel — look, I don’t have his clinical record in front of me. I generally don’t like to second-guess other physicians. He’s got excellent doctors working for him and taking care of him. But it is a bit unusual to have all of this stuff happening the way it is. And it certainly makes us worried that he is getting what we often talk about as VIP care, which is often worse care, because with VIPs we tend to often throw out the kind of scientific guidebook and go and start improvising, because we want to do everything for them. But that’s not necessarily better care. It can mean overdoing things. Again, I don’t have enough details about his clinical condition to know whether he’s getting the right care, but certainly this is concerning.

AMY GOODMAN: And the dexamethasone, which is a steroid antisuppressant, it’s dangerous to give it too early to a COVID patient, is that right?

DR. ASHISH JHA: Absolutely. So, again, we’ve got one really high-quality clinical trial on this, and it showed that people who got it early, people who got it when there was no respiratory compromise, actually did worse. And that’s probably because they were in that sort of virologic phase where their immune system was actually necessary and it was not overreacting. And if you give dexamethasone too early, you can do more harm than good.

Again, with the president, you know, I trust the physicians, the experts at Walter Reed and Hopkins who are involved, so I’m assuming they’re making good decisions. But it’s really hard to know with all the opacity of what exactly is happening with him.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Dr. Ashish Jha, let’s talk about what happened on Thursday. Whether or not President Trump knew, I mean, I just — with the number of lies that spew from the White House and from the president himself, whether he knew he was positive when he took off to fly to New Jersey, he clearly knew — I mean, the White House spokespeople have said, Mark Meadows has said, he knew, before he took off, that Hope Hicks had tested positive, and he is with her constantly, and they were on the flight together, Air Force One, when she was feeling sick the night before. He knew this. Talk about the dangers that he put people in on that flight and then when he arrived in New Jersey. The people at Bedminster, his donors, did not know about these circumstances before. Apparently, the White House has refused to turn over the list to the New Jersey governor so that they can do contact tracing. Hundreds of people were there for an inside/outside event. Talk about this.

DR. ASHISH JHA: Yeah. So, the CDC guidelines on this is very clear, and for good reason. The evidence here is very clear. So, let’s assume that he had not gotten tested positive on Thursday morning, when he took off for Bedminster. If he had been — if he knew that Ms. Hicks was positive, he at that point was a contact. He was somebody who needed to quarantine for 14 days, irrespective of any positive or negative test. The reason is because he was — he had some significant risk of having been infected and, in fact, having become infectious. So the idea that, once you know you’re a contact, you get on a plane and you go to a fundraiser is deeply irresponsible.

Now, people keep thinking of this as somehow these quarantines and these isolations are nice to have, would be nice to do. No, this is essential work. You know, I was thinking about the fact that we — people are missing work, people are missing school, because of quarantining. When we have to quarantine, it poses a huge burden on everybody. But you have to do it, because that’s how you break chains of transmission for this highly infectious virus. And it applies to everyone. The president is not immune from this virus, as we know, and the president is also not immune from spreading the virus.

So, the idea that he knew he was a contact to somebody who was positive, and knew, should have known — everybody around him should have known that he needed to quarantine for 14 days, and yet still went to an event, I think, is — as I said, it’s deeply irresponsible. It’s disrespectful to everybody he came in close contact with, because he was essentially saying that “I could be transmitting the virus to you, and it doesn’t matter.”

And it also undermines our ability to ask other Americans to do this, because if the president won’t do it for a fundraiser, how do we ask a child to do it to avoid school? How do we ask an essential worker to miss days of work and do this? I don’t understand it, to be perfectly honest. And I find it upsetting, frustrating. It just — it’s irresponsible.

AMY GOODMAN: And one of the people who President Trump met with there had just recently lost their father to COVID. This is not to mention the number of workers at Bedminster, at his private golf club, that are exposed, not to mention what’s happening at the White House right now. And we won’t even know how many or who have tested positive, because the press secretary says she will not reveal this anymore. Michael Shear of The New York Times, who has tested positive, who covers the White House, said he hasn’t been contacted by the White House. The significance of contact tracing, Dr. Jha, and what this means all over? The message President Trump sends not wearing a mask? His own surrogates, people like Jason Miller, people who work with him, once again, even as Trump was in the hospital, mocked Joe Biden for wearing a mask.

DR. ASHISH JHA: Yeah. So, let’s go back to contact tracing. Again, contact tracing is not a nice thing to have, it gives you information. No, no, no, no. It’s essential to stopping the outbreak. There is an outbreak happening at the White House. It will continue to spread. It will not go away on its own. It will not magically disappear. It will continue to spread within the White House. It will spread to other people outside the White House. That’s how the virus works.

The way you stop it is you test, trace and isolate. You test people. You identify who’s been infected. You isolate folks who are infected. And you quarantine all their contacts. And you keep going until you’ve got the virus under control. And it really feels like the White House is seeing this as an inconvenience. Sure, it’s an inconvenience. It’s also essential.

And the other part, to me, as a citizen, is, you know, we all pay — through our taxes, we pay for the people who work at the White House. We absolutely have a right to know what’s happening. I don’t need to know people’s personal information, but we absolutely need to know who’s been tested, who’s been infected, who’s quarantined. That is a basic right of Americans to understand about their government. So, you can’t — I don’t believe it’s at all reasonable that that information would somehow be kept.

But again, I want to emphasize there is a lot of political leaders, on both sides of the political aisle, but certainly this White House, that have taken things like quarantining and testing and tracing as nice things to do if you can do it, if you can get around to it. And I want to emphasize that’s actually the only real tool we have for stopping the chains of transmission and bringing the virus under control. Doing anything else is irresponsible.

AMY GOODMAN: We are at 210,000 people in this country who have died. More than 7 million have been infected. Can you talk about, as we wrap up right now, the most egregious mistakes of this administration, that President Trump seems to be continuing even as he is sick with COVID?

DR. ASHISH JHA: Yeah. So, when you look at other countries that have done a much, much better job, there is one thing that differentiates them from us. And that is about taking the virus seriously. There isn’t one formula. You could do masking. You could do testing and tracing. You could do really aggressive social distancing, or some combination of all three of those things.

What has happened is that our federal government, at every step, has downplayed the virus, has minimized its impact, has — it’s led the American people to believe that somehow it’s about to go away. And that has undermined every effort that it has made, and it has undermined every effort of state and local governments and individuals. It has created confusion. It has spread misinformation.

Really, there’s one thing. This is a very serious virus. Let’s take it seriously. Let’s do the things that we know to bring it under control. And we can. And if we do, we can open up schools, and we can open up workplaces. We can get a lot of our lives back, but only if we control the virus. And the failure to control the virus will go down as, I think, one of the biggest catastrophes of American domestic and health policy in generations. And it continues to baffle me that we still aren’t doing it.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Ashish Jha, I want to thank you for being with us, now dean of Brown University School of Public Health. And I want to thank Jeff Mason, Reuters White House correspondent. Instead of the question, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” when was the president infected, and who did he infect? As we continue to cover the infection election.

When we come back, Kentucky’s attorney general has complied with a judge’s order to release 15 hours of audiotape from the disputed grand jury proceedings. We’ll speak with the family attorney for Breonna Taylor, Ben Crump. Stay with us.

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