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President Trump’s COVID diagnosis offers chance to reset public health messaging

From the President

Kresge President Rip Rapson has been writing daily notes to the staff during the COVID-19 pandemic as we continue to work from home. We are sharing a selection of these letters that touch on current events and issues relevant to these unprecedented times.

Even by the standards of the last nine months, the weekend was a roller-coaster ride in a thunder-storm within a political cataclysm. It has been unbearably hard and sad to witness just how relentlessly COVID has attacked not only the President, but also so many of his inner circle, attendees of the Rose Garden event and others. I continue to hope and wish for the best for all those who have been touched.

It is my ardent hope that this moment will precipitate a significant course-change in the federal government’s framing of how the virus enters the public discourse, understanding, and resolve. Making that pivot is important to every American.  It’s central to how we work at Kresge. It’s core to how the front-line organizations we support navigate through the long journey that remains in front of us in overcoming the virus’ horrific and destabilizing effects.

Here is a set of 10 recommendations for that frame and a look at how well we are currently doing, with Green Zone being good, Yellow Zone being unclear, and Red Zone being disappointingly unsatisfactory.

Metric #1: adhering to an optimism that the President and First Lady will recover their health quickly and fully. The press conferences at Walter Reed on Saturday and Sunday would suggest that they’re on a good path. So too might the President’s “drive-by” Sunday afternoon.

Green Zone

Metric #2: recognizing that the processes of government are designed to provide continuity and stability in situations such as this. The need for uninterrupted clarity in decision-making responsibilities and capacities does seem to be firmly in place and susceptible of effective execution. The hesitation I have here is Vice President Mike Pence’s apparent resolve to carry on with minimal adjustment his previously planned campaign events, despite many medical commentators advocating for a period of quarantine given his exposures at Amy Coney Barrett’s ceremony.

Green Zone/ Yellow Zone

Metric #3: tempering the Administration’s claims that the country has turned the corner on the virus. It’s not yet clear whether the infection of virtually the entire West Wing, increasing number of Senators, and others will translate into an articulation of the need to tap the breaks on politicizing mask-wearing and social distancing, re-opening of businesses and schools, and overstating the imminence of a vaccine or therapeutic.

Yellow Zone

Metric 4: elevating the imperative of promoting mitigation measures. This is related to the third metric – it does seem reasonable to expect, however, that there will be less political denigration of mask-wearing and greater reluctance to bunch people too tightly in public or private gatherings. The adjustments to the vice-presidential debate this week seem to point in a promising direction.

Yellow Zone

Metric 5: abandoning large rallies as a campaign staple. It’s really hard to imagine that President Trump will return to large campaign rallies after his recovery. But  it is the vehicle in which he is most comfortable delivering his message, through which he energizes his supporters,  and by which he can command media attention. So, this is a “let’s see what happens” situation. With the president’s fixation on projecting strength, he may well conclude that a return to rallies will represent an affirmation of his ability to overcome any challenge. And as Vice President Pence picks up the in-person campaign slack between now and then, the same question arises – and here, the early indications are less than encouraging.

Yellow Zone/ Red Zone

Metric 6:  acknowledging the importance of transparency. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible to move backwards on this one. But the two press conferences from Walter Reed doctors this weekend – supplemented by Chief of Staff Mark Meadows’ statement about the severity of the next 48 hours – certainly accomplished that. We remain unclear about whether the president was diagnosed 72 or 48 hours prior to his hospital admission and when he last tested negative . . . what the actual significance of his oxygen treatments was . . . what the conclusions from his chest exams were. Did he board a plane last week knowing that he had been exposed? What is the significance of the president receiving dexamethasone (a powerful steroid that suppresses the immune system)?

As lay-people, we’re not competent to parse this kind of mixed, incomplete messaging. Nor is it appropriate to make arm-chair judgments about the implications of the treatment regimen the president is receiving from a world-class team of specialists. Those doctors can reveal to the public only that information the patient agrees to reveal. The importance, it seems to me, is to cut through the political optics to a place of trust. In such a very serious and destabilized time, we simply have to do what we can to rebuild a sense of confidence that what we are hearing from our elected leadership is sufficiently trustworthy for us all to make informed judgments on multiple fronts. Anything short of a complete picture creates even more fear, uncertainty, and skepticism.

Blaring Red Zone

Metric 7: holding a humanized view of both the president and his opponent. The good will toward the First Family has been unanimous and unequivocal. Vice President Biden has paused negative advertising. So far, so good.

Yellow Zone

Metric 8: minimizing other sources of insecurity and instability over the duration of the campaign.   The president’s health – and the health of so many members of his administration – creates plenty of anxiety about how the election will be conducted, thank you very much. There would seem to be a powerful case for dialing down the intensity of those issues that will exacerbate that anxiety. In particular, attacks on mail-in voting and the demonization of urban protests. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all – both sides – heeded Michelle Obama and went “high.”

Beyond the Red: Infrared Zone

Metric 9: taking the question of the vice presidency seriously. Even as we anticipate a full recovery by the president, the events of the last week remind us that Mike Pence and Kamala Harris have vitally important roles to play – during the remainder of the campaign and after one of them is sworn in as vice president in January. That message already appears to have sunk in.

Green Zone

Metric 10: centering COVID past, present, and future at the core of the remaining campaign. The reality that the most protected human being in American can fall ill to COVID is a wake-up call for those who had doubts about the virus’ unflinching eagerness to grab onto anyone within range. With 7 million people in the U.S. having contracted the virus and nearly 210,000 struck down by it, one wouldn’t think it necessary to remind any sentient being that this issue will remain center stage for the next thirty days. Not that we can minimize racial justice . . . or climate change . . . or rebuilding American cities . . . or putting people back to work. We can’t and won’t. But neither can we sweep the greatest health crisis in the last century under the rug.

Yellow Zone

So, a somewhat hopeful dashboard. Here’s hoping that we get all ten into the green zone soon. The health, security, and stability of our country depends on it.