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While receiving the best health care, Trump downplayed the risk of COVID-19

Trump removes mask after returning to White House
President Donald Trump on Monday left the hospital where he has been receiving an unprecedented level of care for COVID-19.

As president, Donald Trump has enjoyed access to the best taxpayer-funded health care has to offer.

There’s a full medical facility and intensive care unit at his residence in the White House, where he was initially treated after contracting the coronavirus. When his symptoms worsened, a government helicopter whisked him to the nation’s premier military hospital, where he has been treated in a lavish VIP suite. And his care has been overseen by a team of the some of the nation’s leading doctors, who have prescribed at least one unapproved drug that has been only available to a select few in clinical trials.

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With 210,000 Americans dead and nearly 7.5 million others infected by the virus — many of whom could hardly imagine the level of care the president has received — Trump’s latest decision to downplay the threat of the virus struck many as shameless and irresponsible, putting concerns for his political image above public health.

“Don’t be afraid of Covid,” Trump urged on Twitter as he announced he was leaving Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Monday. “Don’t let it dominate your life.”

“We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge," he added. "I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”

Arthur Caplan, director of medical ethics at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, called Trump’s defiant tweet “a horrendously terrible message.”

“This is not what the public needs to hear,” he said. “That might be what you say if you wanted to be reelected, and you were vulnerable because of mismanaging the pandemic.”

He and others lambasted Trump for continuing to minimize the dangers of the virus and for contributing to those risks by holding large rallies with supporters packed together, many without masks. Few of those supporters would have the same level of care to combat the virus.

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“Trump remains indifferent to the huge gaps that the American people face in getting health care, while he’s getting premiere, boutique health care,” Caplan said.

He noted the irony of a president — one who has decried socialism and paid next to no taxes for years — benefiting from government-provided health care.

“If this experience hasn’t taught him anything — after the virus not only infected him but his loved ones, workforce, and donors — he’s unteachable,” Caplan said.

Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and director of its Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, also took umbrage at Trump’s message.

“This tweet continues a pattern of statements and behaviors by the president and the political members of his administration that demonstrate and encourage irresponsibility in the midst of a public health emergency,” he said.

“No one wants COVID to dominate our lives, but the way to bring it under control is to take it seriously and work much harder than the president did to protect ourselves, and ensure that if we become infected, we avoid transmitting to others," he added.

Lipsitch blamed Trump for consistently encouraging behavior that “prolongs the epidemic, leads to more cases and deaths, and hobbles our economy and social lives even more as a result.”

He noted that Trump pressed his security detail on Sunday to take him on a short drive from the hospital to greet his supporters, putting them at risk. “He deliberately ignores public health advice," he said.

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William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology also at the T.H. Chan School, said that Trump has not fully recovered from the virus, despite his doctors' upbeat reports and his return to the White House. After abating, COVID-19 can return with a vengeance.

“This remains a virus capable of causing very serious disease,” he said.

Trump, presumably still contagious, returned to a White House where several aides have already contracted the virus, and others have been exposed.

Like other medical professionals, he offered a broader critique of the Trump administration’s often contradictory response to the virus: “A coherent national pandemic management plan would help stop it dominating our lives.”

Dr. Nicholas S. Hill, chief of the Pulmonary Critical Care and Sleep Division at Tufts Medical Center, said Trump’s message undercut public health advice.

“We don’t want people to take this disease lightly,” he said. “It’s true we’ve made some advances. It’s not like we can turn everyone around, like he has apparently turned around. We still need to be wary.”

At UMass Memorial Medical Center, where many COVID-19 patients have been treated, Dr. Nicholas A. Smyrnios said no one should doubt the dangers of the disease.

“Everybody should have respect for COVID,” said Smyrnios, medical director of the medical intensive care units. “We didn’t take it seriously at the beginning. That’s why we’re having such big problems.”

Many of those who have lost loved ones to the virus were similarly outraged by what the president wrote.

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Laurie Beaudette lost her father, Jim Mandeville, to the virus in April.

She was galled to see Trump downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic, calling his comments offensive to the thousands of families whose relatives have died.

“He’s not understanding the real suffering people have gone through,” she said.

Her father died in a devastating outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, a state-run facility where he lived for 16 years.

“It was so awful, so horrific,” she said. “[Trump] has no clue how blessed he is … He’s trying to act tough, and he’s not thinking about the rest of the country.”

Felice Freyer of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Nick Stoico contributed to this report.


David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.