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Top public health officials say politics contributed to US COVID-19 death toll

Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Dr. Anthony Fauci.Al Drago/Bloomberg

With the United States crossing the grim threshold of 500,000 deaths due to COVID-19 this week, two of the nation’s top public health officials said they believe politics contributed to the country’s outsized death toll.

In an interview with Reuters on Monday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the US, said he believes political divisiveness is the most compelling reason the US, “a rich and sophisticated country,” was the hardest-hit country in the world.

While every country grappled with the virus, Fauci said, the US has “done worse than we should have done,” in part because the pandemic struck at a time of intense political division.

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It would have been a challenge to address the outbreak under the best of circumstances, Fauci said, but the “mixed signals from the White House” on adherence to public health measures to mitigate the spread of the virus complicated the country’s response.

“You can’t deny that we have the medical people saying, ‘please adhere to these guidelines,’ and then you have the president saying, ‘liberate Virginia. Liberate Michigan,’ ” Fauci said. “That’s not helpful.”

Former president Donald Trump spent months downplaying the severity of COVID-19. He compared it to the flu, predicted at one point that it would just “disappear,” and refused to follow or promote mitigation measures suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention like wearing masks, instead pushing for businesses to reopen.

Fauci referenced Trump’s support on Twitter for protesters who took to state capitol buildings in multiple states to oppose stay-at-home orders and urge governors to lift restrictions on businesses. On April 17, Trump tweeted “Liberate Minnesota!” despite issuing guidelines the night before that recommended states achieve a 14-day “downward trajectory” in key COVID-19 metrics before reopening.

Trump was particularly resistant to wearing masks. He wasn’t seen wearing one in public until July, months after the pandemic began. During a presidential debate in late September, he mocked his political opponent, Joe Biden, for wearing one.

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“I don’t wear a mask like [Biden],” Trump said. “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away from it, and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve seen.”

In the interview with Reuters, Fauci said Trump is not entirely to blame for the country’s inability to contain the outbreak, but said “the lack of involvement at the very top of the leadership in trying to do everything that was science-based was clearly detrimental to the effort.”

Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institute of Health, said in an interview clip published Sunday with Axios that the politicization of wearing masks may have led to “tens of thousands” of deaths in the US.

“The evidence was pretty compelling by last March or April that uniform wearing of masks would reduce transmission of this disease,” Collins said. “A mask is nothing more than a life-saving medical device, and yet it got categorized in all sorts of other ways that were not factual, not scientific, and frankly, dangerous.”

Collins was asked specifically about Trump’s opposition to masks, according to Axios.

“It’s so disappointing that such behaviors could be chosen, intentionally by people who have access to real public health information, and yet would decide not to put on the mask in order to make some other kind of statement,” he said. “Perhaps with some sense that they’re immune from the consequences.”

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A June 2020 study by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of those polled felt masks should be worn in public places at least most of the time, but there was a significant partisan split in responses. Respondents of the poll who identified as Democrats or leaning Democratic were about twice as likely as Republicans or Republican-leaning respondents to say that masks should always be worn.

Public health experts under President Biden have been speaking out recently about the way the Trump administration’s response to the virus impeded the nation’s progress in containing the outbreak. Earlier this month, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said in an interview with MSNBC that staff at the agency have been “muzzled, they have been beaten down, but they are still there, and they are working hard, long hours.”

The US on Monday surpassed 500,000 deaths due to COVID-19, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University, and also leads the world in the number of coronavirus cases.

“Now we have a situation where we’ve reached a landmark,” Fauci said of the US death toll. “That is stunning in its magnitude. This is the worst thing that’s happened to this country, with regard to the health of the nation, in over 100 years.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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Amanda Kaufman can be reached at amanda.kaufman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandakauf1.