Union of Concerned Scientists

What Part of “Public Health Expert” Doesn’t the Administration Understand?

Johns Hopkins University

Many many people around the world are heeding the advice of scientists by limiting social contact, staying home and doing their part to slow the spread of COVID-19. Of course there are news reports of those who seem oblivious or in denial of the risks, but by and large we know the seriousness of the crisis by paying attention to some great reporting and analysis, and by trusting that public health experts are doing exactly what they trained to do—advise the public about risks and how to reduce them.

So too, many governors, mayors and other elected officials, Republican and Democrat, have made the hard choices to heed that scientific advice. And it is a hard step to take. Millions out of work, hospitals strained to the limit already, shutdowns of huge areas of the country and around the world. No one recommends this lightly, nor acts on the advice at a whim. Expertise matters and we need it more than ever.

We may not have all the data from testing in the US that we need, but we do have data from other countries. And it is clear that slowing the spread of the virus allows a greater opportunity for using our resources wisely. That’s a technical, not a political judgement. To do that, South Korea’s experience is instructive, “Leaders concluded that subduing the outbreak required keeping citizens fully informed and asking for their cooperation, said Mr. Kim, the vice health minister.”

But it is disturbing and shameful that the messages from the White House seem to be steadily losing the voice of experts. Yesterday, only one public health expert was left on the stage at the daily press event. Dr. Fauci, from NIH, is garnering respect and praise for his straightforward message even as he has walked a careful line with this Administration. But now he is absent. And the President seems no longer listening. Yesterday he said,”This is a medical problem. We won’t let it be a financial problem.”

Actually it is a public health problem, hence the experts we need are public health experts. That’s not a trade-off any government should make, and it’s a false choice. After all, we can’t have a strong economy if we’re facing an expanded outbreak that puts workers, communities and the health-care system in danger.

We must address public health, and we must work to support the people we are trying to protect in other ways too. It is not a choice but side-by-side imperatives. And to meet those imperatives it is expertise we need, not bluster.

Originally published in Union of Concerned Scientists.

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