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How Trump administration has undermined public trust on pandemic

The United States’ experience with the coronavirus pandemic has been marked by misinformation and disagreement. What do we know for sure about the risks of COVID-19 -- and where incorrect information is originating? Former CDC director Tom Frieden of Resolve to Save Lives and Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s digital forensic research lab, join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's fill in the picture now about what we do know about the risks of COVID, and provide some perspective on what we believe is misinformation.

    Dr. Tom Frieden is president of Resolve to Save Lives, a global public health initiative. He was director of the CDC from 2009 to 2017, during the H1N1, Ebola and Zika outbreaks. And Graham Brookie is director and managing editor of The Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab.

    And we welcome both of you to the "NewsHour."

    Dr. Tom Frieden, to you first.

    We have just heard from voters. We heard one gentleman say he believes the pandemic has been overblown, another voter saying he didn't think it's that serious, and yet another saying she believed that, if she got it, she thought she would be asymptomatic.

    If you could speak to these voters, what would you say to them?

  • Thomas Frieden:

    I think we have to move past these open/shut dichotomies.

    The fact is that, for most people who get the virus, it's going to be mild or even asymptomatic. But because so many people get it, because it's so infectious, it's very deadly for us as a society, as a community.

    And that's something that really emphasizes that we're all connected. The more we recognize that, even if you don't feel sick at all, you might give it to someone who gets it and someone who dies from it.

    That's why there have been well over 200,000 deaths in this country and a million deaths around the world from this novel virus that's never been around before.

    We have tools to confront it. We have to apply all of them together, not one of them, but all of them together. And the more we recognize that we're connected, even if we have to stay apart some, the more we can control it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Dr. Frieden, just quickly, right now, am I right that the virus — number of cases of the virus is still increasing in a number of states?

  • Thomas Frieden:

    In most of the U.S., is virus is currently increasing.

    The virus has the upper hand because we're not following science. The virus doesn't listen to spin. The virus doesn't pay attention to politics. In fact, what infectious diseases, including this virus, generally do is, they prey on the fissures, on the break points in society, whether that's partisanship, or racism, or migrant workers who don't have health services.

    And the approach that's going to be most effective is a comprehensive approach that includes an all-of-the-above, masks, social distancing, quarantines when needed, isolation, and when it becomes available, a safe and effective vaccine.

    By doing all of those things together, we can make a huge difference. And one of the things that's been so lacking, one of the reasons for those attitudes that you reviewed, is the failure to communicate.

    There are clear principles of how to communicate in a health emergency, be first, be right, be credible, be empathetic, give people concrete things to do.

    And what we have lacked throughout this entire federal response is the voice of science speaking from the administration, explaining what we're learning when we're learning it and what people can do to protect themselves, their families and their communities.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just very — excuse me. I do want to turn to Graham Brookie for just a moment.

    As someone who has looked at this, where would you say this misinformation comes from, or the sense that people can relax about this virus?

  • Thomas Frieden:

    We're fine.

  • Graham Brookie:

    Well, that's a very good question.

    And, frankly, it comes from an overall lack of trust in official ways that we would typically hear reliable information about this. This goes back to what the World Health Organization coined in February, which is an infodemic, which, in a crisis situation, it's an overabundance of information, some accurate and some not, that leads to a situation in which it's very, very difficult for regular people to understand exactly what the facts are and what the risk is associated with the virus, up to this day.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Graham Brookie, quickly following on that, how much of what the president has said, I mean, even until today, saying it's nothing to be afraid of, is contributing, do you think, to people's perceptions?

  • Graham Brookie:

    There's no doubt that Donald Trump is the largest spreader of specific and important types of misinformation today, especially about coronavirus, or COVID-19.

    One study from Cornell University that was released last week found that the president himself is the largest driver of disinformation about coronavirus.

    And there's an example that we had just early, early this morning, where he compared it again, as Dr. Frieden mentioned, to the common flu. That is not the case.

    But the president's social media presence is just the tip of the iceberg, with an entire amplification ecosystem of both right-wing media, influencers, outright conspiracy communities that are really, really highly engaged on this.

    And that convergence takes these misinformation narratives and makes them more mainstream.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Dr. Frieden, I mean, just very quickly, when we see, for example, this week the report that the White House turned down an offer from the CDC to help with contact tracing after this big outbreak at the White House, what are we to make of that?

  • Thomas Frieden:

    This was such a teachable moment, one that testing alone doesn't prevent spread of COVID. You need a comprehensive policy. The White House got too reliant on testing. That's why they have an outbreak there.

    Two, that someone who's sick needs to isolate. Three, that everyone who is exposed needs to be quarantined, so they don't spread it to others.

    This could have been a great teachable moment to explain what we can do to get ahead of the virus.

    Instead, we see delayed or incomplete or completely absent warning of people who've been exposed. Contact tracing may not be a great term, because it sounds like you're snooping on people, but, fundamentally, what you're doing is, you're warning people who've been exposed, so that they can protect themselves and their families, because you might not know that you have been exposed, you might not know that you're infectious, because you can have no symptoms at all, and yet pass it to someone who dies from it.

    So, a good response would have systematically identified the spread, stopped the spread. We have not seen the end of this. It is quite likely there will be additional cases emanating from that cluster from the different exposures that occurred.

    And we still don't know the basics of when the president was last negative, when he was really first positive, and all of the exposures there. This is the kind of investigation that the CDC, local and state health departments do day in and day out. It's not easy to do. It's quite in-depth.

    But, if done well, it helps you figure out why it happened and helps you stop it before it spreads.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, Graham Brookie, for people who are watching this who may think the virus is overblown, frankly don't know where to turn for information because of some of what's come out of the White House and the president himself, not to mention other sources, where can people turn for accurate information?

  • Graham Brookie:

    Well, always look to sources that are both accountable and transparent.

    First and foremost, I'm not a doctor. I would point directly to Dr. Frieden. He is one of the most reliable sources on this issue that is out there. And he's consistently updating the public with what we know and what we don't know. That's reliable information.

    For the normal kind of social media user, while scrolling on your phone or while you're tuned into the TV at night, always check the source, which guards against disinformation, the spread of false information intentionally.

    But, also, check the source's source, which guards against misinformation. When you hear something like, "Many people are saying," that's probably not very reliable. And you can take an extra step in order to protect yourself and get the best information about coronavirus.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Graham Brookie and Dr. Tom Frieden, we thank you both so much.

  • Thomas Frieden:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Graham Brookie:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And one note before we leave this topic.

    Dr. Rick Bright, who is the former head of a major federal vaccine agency turned whistle-blower, resigned from the agency today. He filed a whistle-blower complaint back in May.

    In a statement today, Bright's attorney said he has since been sidelined, and he accused the agency of putting — quote — "politics over science."

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