Trump: Wearing a mask is patriotic

Good tweet, but you know how erratic his messaging can be, especially when he gets an earful from fans. No worse than 50/50 odds that in his next interview he’ll say masks have always struck him as “a little bit girly” or whatever.

If it only took four months to get him to clearly endorse masks, I’m cautiously optimistic we can get him to clearly endorse more testing before Election Day.

Anyway, masks do seem to work. A recent study at Florida Atlantic University found that a basic homemade mask of two-ply cotton quilting managed to contain aersolized droplets to within two and a half inches of a mannequin’s face after they were expelled. Droplets from a simulated cough by an unmasked mannequin traveled eight feet by comparison. A different study that’s soon to be published suggests that masks are not only effective at protecting others from infection by the masked person but may provide a meaningful degree of protection for the masked person from infection by others. Which could be important, as one of the theories for why some people get deathly ill and others shake the virus off without a hitch is related to viral load. *If* your illness will be more severe depending upon how many viral particles you inhale then wearing a mask could be a life-saver even if it doesn’t stop you from being infected.

In fact, how’s that out for an outside-the-box theory to explain why deaths in America are way down from their April/May peak? It may be that we’re seeing less severe cases because more people are wearing masks, which means fewer coronavirus particles are making their way into their noses and throats. Not so few that they don’t get sick, but few enough to keep them out of the morgue.

On the other hand, if more Americans are masked up, how is that we’re still seeing exploding case counts while countries where masks are less prevalent are holding the disease at bay?

The percentage who say they “always” wear a mask when leaving home rose among all three partisan groups between the end of June and last week and yet we’re still setting daily records for new cases. Why? Maybe masks aren’t so great at preventing infection but are pretty good at preventing severe infection. In fact, the IHME recently modeled how the pandemic might have looked if America had had a national mask mandate in place during April for workers at “public-facing businesses” and the mandate had been strictly followed. Their best guess is that 40,000 lives would have been saved.

On to the big mystery: Why is Trump tweeting about masks now? He’s been ambivalent about them since March, only to turn around today and designate them as a patriotic response to the epidemic. My guess is that it has to do with the fact that the reporting on his handling of COVID-19 this past weekend was brutal even by typical media standards. I quoted this WaPo article in an earlier post, in which a Trump advisor said of the president that he’s “not really working this [the pandemic] anymore. He doesn’t want to be distracted by it. He’s not calling and asking about data. He’s not worried about cases.” The Times ran a piece about Republicans “despairing that he will ever play a constructive role in addressing the crisis” and beginning to distance themselves from his strange disengagement from the crisis however they can. An advisor to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott went on the record to say of the pandemic, “The president got bored with it,” and stressed that Abbott now interfaces with Mike Pence when he wants action on something.

It’s the most important issue in the country to voters and the biggest health crisis America has faced in ages. Getting bored with it is like getting bored with a war three months after shooting has started. Even if that’s how you feel, pretend that you care. Feel the voters’ pain. Trump hardly bothers to pretend anymore, occasionally chipping in dismissively that we have more cases because we’re doing more tests (which isn’t why we have more cases) or insisting that the virus will magically go away of its own accord someday. A separate NYT piece claims that, around mid-April, he and his staff became convinced that “the outbreak was fading, that they had given state governments all the resources they needed to contain its remaining ’embers’ and that it was time to ease up on the lockdown.” They were encouraged in that belief, reportedly, by … Deborah Birx, who believed America was on an Italy track in which we would crush the curve after our terrible first wave but was apparently foiled in her expectations by Trump’s push to reopen early and relax social distancing. The same piece alleges that Mark Meadows has gone so far as to counsel Trump and other deputies to “avoid drawing attention to the virus,” as if the public might just forget about it if no one brings it up.

Mid-April does seem to be the point at which Trump more or less ended his participation in the crisis. Remember that he initially wanted to reopen businesses on Easter(!), was grudgingly persuaded that that was too soon, but began to focus his rhetoric heavily on reopening from that point on. The last hurrah for the White House on trying to contain the virus were the federal guidelines on reopening in “stages” that were released on April 16. Hardly any effort was made to get states to follow those guidelines, though; apart from briefly scolding Brian Kemp in Georgia for reopening places like nail salons a bit too soon, I don’t think Trump’s ever demanded that a state hew to their guidance. Even though, technically, it’s his guidance.

But that’s still not the worst of the reporting. Here’s where Republicans get really nervous:

The Trump administration is trying to block billions of dollars for states to conduct testing and contact tracing in the upcoming coronavirus relief bill, people involved in the talks said Saturday.

The administration is also trying to block billions of dollars that GOP senators want to allocate for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and billions more for the Pentagon and State Department to address the pandemic at home and abroad, the people said.

The administration’s posture has angered some GOP senators, the officials said, and some lawmakers are trying to push back and ensure that the money stays in the bill. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to reveal confidential deliberations, cautioned that the talks were fluid and the numbers were in flux…

One person involved in the talks said Senate Republicans were seeking to allocate $25 billion for states to conduct testing and contact tracing, but that certain administration officials want to zero out the testing and tracing money entirely. Some White House officials believe they have already approved billions of dollars in assistance for testing and that some of that money remains unspent.

Being seen as indifferent to an epidemic of which many Americans are terrified is bad politics, and plays right into Biden’s strength as an “empathetic” figure. Actually trying to undermine efforts to contain the pandemic by pinching pennies at a moment when America’s spending money as never before is politically catastrophic. Someone (maybe McConnell?) must have had a heart-to-heart with Trump this weekend or this morning and gently conveyed the message that you need to pretend that you care. The GOP is a political party, not a death cult. And so here’s the president finally tweeting out that masks are patriotic and announcing earlier today the return of the daily coronavirus briefing, starting tomorrow afternoon. The message, in both cases, is that he cares. Let’s hope he doesn’t undermine it for awhile.