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‘As an epidemiologist, I want to vomit’: Health experts slam Trump comments to Woodward on COVID-19 threat

President Trump.
President Trump.MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Public health experts on Wednesday slammed President Trump for acknowledging privately in February that COVID-19 was far more deadly than the flu and highly contagious, even as he played down the threat publicly and urged states to reopen businesses.

“If accurate, this reporting suggests that the decision to avoid a serious response was deliberate,” said Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiology professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in an e-mail message Wednesday. “We have lost 150,000 Americans and counting, and it increasingly looks as if others will have long-term health consequences of this infection. As a scientist, those are the facts. As a citizen, it is hard to know which is worse — that this was done out of ignorance, when there was so much clear information, or that, as this reporting suggests, it was done deliberately.”

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Lipsitch responded to audio, reported by The Washington Post, of an interview the president gave to Bob Woodward.

“It goes through air, Bob, that’s always tougher than the touch,” Trump said during a February interview with Woodward, apparently referring to reports that COVID-19 could spread through the air, rather than through touching contaminated surfaces. “It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”

Woodward interviewed Trump extensively for his new book, “Rage.”

Trump told Woodward the data showed the virus had a 5 percent death rate, compared with less than 1 percent for the flu, calling COVID-19 “deadly stuff.” During a separate interview on March 19, Trump discussed his public messaging on the virus, telling Woodward he wanted to play down the threat so as not to cause “a panic."

On Wednesday, reactions from the public health community were swift and often critical.

“Experts in January and February were loudly saying that COVID-19 was an exceptionally serious threat,” Lipsitch wrote. “Governments around the world took decisive, concerted action, while the US government, led by the president, downplayed it publicly and lost precious time by not responding promptly. There has never yet been a comprehensive strategy. All those facts were clear, and it was a bit of a mystery how our government was almost uniquely ineffectual.”

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Andy Slavitt, acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in the Obama administration, tweeted about the revelations Wednesday.

He wrote that Trump “knew and said on tape how deadly COVID-19 was and chose to underplay it,” and also that he “knew this was lethal in young people & spread by air and told people nothing.”

Trump’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, defended the president’s remarks during her briefing Wednesday with the White House press corps.

"This president has done what leaders do, what good leaders do, and stay calm, and resolute, at a time when you face an insurmountable challenge,” she said, adding that Trump “has never lied to the American public on COVID.”

Her defense of her boss enraged Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and former faculty member and researcher at Harvard’s Chan School.

“ORWELLIAN,” tweeted Feigl-Ding, now a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C. “As an epidemiologist, I want to vomit.” Most upsetting, he wrote, “is that we knew, and we tried to warn. And yet people tried to shout us January alarmists down.”

Feigl-Ding also reacted to a CNN interview with Woodward’s former colleague Carl Bernstein, who told the station the interview tapes are graver than the Watergate scandal.

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“The deaths here are graver than Watergate,” Feigl-Ding tweeted. “190,000 didn’t die from Watergate.”

His words were echoed by Gregg Gonsalves, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Medicine.

Gonsalves tweeted that he and another researcher “documented @realDonaldTrump’s actions that made [the] pandemic far worse than it had to be. Now we know he did it with full knowledge of seriousness of #COVID19. @kayleighmcenany & @GOPChairwoman can lie through their teeth, but let the record show.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.