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An infectious disease expert on the dangers of Trump’s ‘non-scientific’ claims

The White House spent part of Friday addressing concerns about President Trump’s apparent conflict with his medical advisors at Thursday's Coronavirus Task Force briefing. Yamiche Alcindor reports, and Amna Nawaz talks to Dr. Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy about Trump’s tendency to make claims on a “non-scientific basis.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As John reported, the White House today spent some time addressing concerns about the president's seeming conflict with his health and medical advisers.

    As Yamiche Alcindor reports now, its not the first time the president and his own team of experts haven't appeared to be on the same page.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Yesterday, President Trump raised eyebrows when he said this:

  • President Donald Trump:

    Right. And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute, one minute.

    And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or — or almost a cleaning, because you see it gets in the lungs, and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So, it would be interesting to check that.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Today, the White House says he was joking.

    But President Trump has repeatedly contradicted health officials during the coronavirus pandemic. Just a day earlier, the president pushed back on a story in The Washington Post that included a warning from the director of the Centers for Disease Control. Robert Redfield said a second wave of the coronavirus in the fall could be even more difficult to handle.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Dr. Robert Redfield was totally misquoted in the media on a statement about the fall season and the virus.

  • Robert Redfield:

    I'm accurately quoted in The Washington Post as difficult.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And, for weeks, President Trump has repeatedly pushed for wider use of drugs used to fight malaria, though those drugs have not been fully tested in their effectiveness against COVID-19.

  • President Donald Trump:

    What do you have to lose? They say take it. I'm not looking at it one way or the other, but we want to get out of this. If it does work, it would be a shame if we didn't do it early.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Despite President Trump's public support, the science behind hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus treatment is unproven.

    A National Institutes of Health study found an increased death rate in COVID-19 patients treated only with that drug. The NIH said there is insufficient clinical data to recommend using it.

    Just today, the Food and Drug Administration agreed and said the drug can cause abnormal heart rhythms.

    The Trump administration has also faced questions after a leading vaccine expert was removed from his job at the Department of Health and Human Services. Dr. Rick Bright plans to file a whistle-blower complaint.

    He alleges he was fired for pushing back on President Trump's promotion of hydroxychloroquine, saying in a statement: "Sidelining me in the middle of this pandemic and placing politics and cronyism ahead of science puts lives at risk."

    Questioned about Dr. Bright's claims today, President Trump said he doesn't know the man.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Yamiche Alcindor.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Amna Nawaz has more on these concerns around the president's statements and how public health experts see the risks ahead.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, we're going to ask one of the leading voices on infectious disease about all of this.

    Dr. Michael Osterholm is the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

    And he joins us now.

    Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Michael Osterholm:

    Thank you very much.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I want to begin by asking you something the president said yesterday that's gotten a lot of reaction today.

    He floated the idea of using ultraviolet lights and disinfectants to possibly combat COVID-19. He said today he was being sarcastic, but what did you think when you first heard the remarks?

  • Michael Osterholm:

    Well, I stopped listening to the daily briefings. I think I'm one of many in our business that has.

    So, I didn't hear them. I only saw them reported secondhand.

    And I can tell you, my 10-year-old grandson wondered what they were all about.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But what do you mean about that?

  • Michael Osterholm:

    I think it was obvious these are not realistic or even, for that matter, potentially safe approaches, and so that, in understanding the comments, one had to just take them for the non-scientific basis upon which they were stated.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Can I ask you, though, because it's not the first time that the president has made statements that either aren't backed up by science or contradict science.

    And they do have some effect. We just heard today from the office of the Maryland governor where they said they got over 100 calls from people calling to the state emergency hot line and asking if they could use disinfectant or either ingest it or inject it to combat the virus.

    Do you worry about the effect of that kind of continued messaging coming from the White House?

  • Michael Osterholm:

    Well, first of all, there's really two aspects of this issue about messaging.

    Number one is, in fact, yes, we don't want to do harm, and throwing out comments without having vetted them with experts.

    But I think equally challenge going forward is, is that we are in for really rough days coming yet, and that's where credibility and leadership are going to be everything. You have to trust the individual who is telling you how bad things are, how bad they will get.

    And where is the credibility coming from? We are going to need FDR-like fireside chats through the course of the next year or two, 16, 18 months. And these kind of events don't instill any kind of confidence that those can happen.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Osterholm, as Americans are trying to plan for their future, I want to ask you about something you said about the timeline.

    You said, when it comes to the virus, we're in the second inning of a nine-inning game. When you look at some of the other comments made by experts about second and third waves, what is it Americans should prepare for ahead?

  • Michael Osterholm:

    You know, at this point, we don't know how it will play out.

    And what I mean, by that is, is that we are going to find a virus wanting and moving forward to infect 60 to 70 percent of us. That's just simply how much infection is going to have to occur to develop immunity in the population, before it will start to shut down that transmission.

    But I just want to remind everyone that, if you look back on the influenza virus model of pandemic flu, what we saw were waves. We — the last 10 influenza pandemics over the past 250 years, they emerged, two in our Northern Hemisphere, winter, three in our spring, two in our summer, and three in the fall.

    And in every instance, about six months after the initial wave hit, we saw a much larger peak, a bigger wave that hit. And I think, here, we don't know if this is going to do that. This is a coronavirus. It's not a flu virus. But it's surely one acting like a flu virus.

    And people have to be aware of this and understand that whatever we're going to do to kind of control it over the upcoming months is not going to be easy, and it may take multiple different efforts to do that.

    But it's not over with, by a long shot.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, given that, given how many more Americans you think will still become sick, do you think it's too early for states to be talking about reopening?

  • Michael Osterholm:

    Well, I don't think, at this point, that whether we open up now or not is going to dictate what happens. So I think we're going to see in some of the states an acceleration and amplification of the cases that are occurring now by opening up.

    But I think, in the end, two months from now, we could see a very quiet country with regards to this virus and everyone feeling, oh, we're fine now, only to come back with a major blast in the summer or fall.

    And so I think that's what we have to be mindful of, is that these starts and stops coming out of lockdowns are likely going to be many.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You have previously estimated that the death toll of the virus could top 800,000.

    When you look at all the steps that have been taken up until right now, do you still believe it could go that high?

  • Michael Osterholm:

    Just think about, if there's 320 million Americans, a half of that, 160 million, are very likely to get infected. And those are numbers you can decide to change however you like, but that surely is a solid number.

    Of those, about 80 percent are going to have very mild or moderate illness, not seeking medical care, and, in some cases, not even know that they were infected.

    The remaining 20 percent, about 10 percent of those, or half, will not need really major medical care, possibly doctor's offices visit; 10 percent, the remaining 10 percent will likely be hospitalized, of which about half of those, or 5 percent of the total, will need intensive care hospitalization. And about one-half to 1 percent of the total will die.

    You can change those numbers however you like. Put them in. Just make sure you explain how you got what you did. And if you look at one-half to 1 percent of 160 million, that's 800,000 to 1.6 million people.

    You can see, we have a lot left to go before we're going to see this virus end, even with a vaccine coming down the pike.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's Dr. Michael Osterholm of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

    Thanks for being with us.

  • Michael Osterholm:

    Thank you very much.

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