Illustration for article titled With Lack of Consistent COVID-19 Messaging From Trump Administration, Lax Responses and Misinformation May Increase Health Risks
Photo: ANGELA WEISS (AFP via Getty Images)

Since the coronavirus broke out in the U.S., Donald Trump has offered mixed messages on the severity of the virus, America’s readiness to combat it, and what the administration plans to do to help millions of Americans access healthcare and resources as the pandemic spreads. Just today, Trump said he hoped to have businesses back open and isolation measures alleviated by April 12 (Easter), less than three weeks away.

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The effects of that inconsistency can be seen in the disparate responses to the pandemic. Liberty University, the evangelical college helmed by the University President Jerry Falwell Jr., plans to open its doors to students this week, according to multiple reports.

“I think we, in a way, are protecting the students by having them on campus together,” Falwell told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Ninety-nine percent of them are not at the age to be at risk and they don’t have conditions that put them at risk.”

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Falwell, who has publicly posited that the coronavirus could be a conspiracy, is a staunch Trump supporter. Opening up the university flies in the face of official White House guidance and violates orders handed down by the commonwealth of Virginia, which has ordered all schools to close for the rest of the year.

Falwell’s concerns do seem to mimic that of Trump’s this week—that the coronavirus cure can’t “be worse than the problem itself.”

“I think we have a responsibility to our students—who paid to be here, who want to be here, who love it here—to give them the ability to be with their friends, to continue their studies, enjoy the room and board they’ve already paid for and to not interrupt their college life,” said Falwell.

That, of course, is wrong. Anyone, of any age, can catch the coronavirus, though certain populations are more likely to develop COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, than others. Over the last couple of weeks, many young people—including a slew of professional athletes—have come forward about testing positive. Symptoms for those who develop COVID-19 include—but are not limited to—muscle aches, fatigue, diarrhea, dry coughing, and breathing problems.

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Falwell told the Times-Dispatch more than 5,000 students were expected to come back to the Liberty campus this week. And even if the majority of them do not get sick, if they continue business as usual, they pose a great risk to the elderly population of Lynchburg, Va. As New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie pointed out, 14.4 percent of the town is 65 or older.

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Trump’s recent talking points were also reflected back by Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, who said he was still taking a “wait-and-see” approach to the coronavirus, even as the state saw its largest single-day increase in COVID-19 cases since the pandemic hit.

As the Jackson Free Press reports, Gov. Reeves hosted a Facebook Live press conference on Monday in which he rejected calls to issue a shelter-in-place order for the state. Such an order would encourage non-essential workers to stay at home to help slow down the rate of transmission. People could still leave their homes occasionally to go to the grocery, food bank, pharmacy, laundromat, or walk their pets, but would need to maintain at least 6 feet of distance from other people and practice good hygiene if they do so.

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“No one at the State Department of Health has recommended that we have a statewide shelter-in-place order,” Reeves said.

“We don’t want to make any decisions that would ultimately do more harm than good,” the governor later added.

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Neighboring Louisiana has, though, as have at least 11 other states, including California, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Michigan. Viruses, of course, don’t respect borders, sharing a border with a state with a lax approach to the virus could imperil people in neighboring states (this at least partially explains why there’s been so much coordination between New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut with their COVID-19 responses).

One major concern is the state’s healthcare infrastructure. Mississippi, like many other Southern states, has refused Medicaid expansion funds. On Tuesday, Congressman Steven Palazzo wrote a letter to top U.S. House leaders requesting emergency funds for rural hospitals. Palazzo warned that many hospitals are on the “brink” of “collapse,” reports the Jackson Free Press.

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Mississippi’s “wait-and-see” approach is also particularly concerning given the high proportion of its population who are black. Anyone can carry and pass on the coronavirus, but certain populations are more susceptible to developing COVID-19 than others. A lot of emphasis has (rightfully) been placed on the elderly, but research shows chronic conditions like diabetes, asthma, hypertension, and heart disease also make people susceptible to developing severe symptoms. Autoimmune disorders like lupus also make people at risk for developing COVID-19. All of these conditions disproportionately affect black people living in the U.S. According to the 2010 Census, 37 percent of Mississippi’s population is black.

Misconceptions about who can catch the virus were apparent in Milwaukee. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, officials are reporting that most of the city’s confirmed cases are middle-aged black men.

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From the Journal-Sentinel:

The first three Milwaukee patients reported to have died after contracting coronavirus were all African American men in their 50s or 60s. The men who died had underlying conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure) or heart problems.

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Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik told the local publication that the initial focus on residents who had traveled overseas may have sent a message to people who had stayed local that the coronavirus couldn’t affect them. She also pointed out the connection between the city’s history of housing segregation and worse health outcomes for black Milwaukeeans. Neighborhoods with concentrations of coronavirus cases are also communities that have other health problems.

“Looking at the maps of Milwaukee, and looking where people live, looking at the history of redlining and segregation and how that crosses over into today,” Kowalik said, “when we’re talking about various health outcomes like infant mortality, childhood lead poisoning, you see very similar distributions.”

Staff writer, The Root.

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