The Trump administration made some serious missteps during the coronavirus pandemic, Trump’s top doctor Jerome Adams admits. But he says we still haven’t learned from them.
“We keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again,” Adams, the surgeon general for the vast majority of the Trump administration, said during the STAT Future Summit. “There was this belief that, OK, we just change who’s in charge at the White House, who’s in charge at the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], who is in charge at the surgeon general’s office, and magically, poof, Covid is gonna go away.”
The nation is currently in the throes of another Covid-19 surge. More than 17,000 people were hospitalized during the last week of August, a 15% surge from a month prior. But while updated booster vaccines could be ready as early as next week, just 7% of Americans are still “very worried” about the pandemic.
The Biden administration has been grappling with how to navigate the latest surge. Earlier this week, days after first lady Jill Biden said she had tested positive with the virus, President Biden, who has thus far tested negative, took off his mask at a Medal of Honor ceremony, seemingly bucking federal guidance for coronavirus exposure. He then left the ceremony early, which press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said was to “minimize his close contact with attendees.” That did not stem online criticism — or confusion over how Americans should navigate the current case surge.
During a separate event Thursday, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra acknowledged the surge and admitted he had begun masking more lately, particularly when he is traveling. But officials have avoided questions about reintroducing mask requirements or social distancing measures at events.
“We didn’t do a good job, from a public health standpoint, communicating in either administration about Covid. That hurt trust quite a bit,” said Adams, who is now Purdue University’s executive director of health equity initiatives. “We’ve got to repair that moving forward, I don’t see that we’re moving fast enough in that direction.”
Oftentimes, the president Adams served was a direct source of that mistrust. Trump pledged vaccines before Election Day, stoking fears they were being rushed for political reasons. His regular White House press briefing appearances abruptly ended after he suggested people could inject bleach to treat the infection and regularly touted unproven treatments such as hydroxychloroquine.
“I got it from both sides and continue to get it from both sides for being at that table,” Adams said. But he stayed.
“I can’t tell you how many times I was the only person of color in a decision making room while I was surgeon general. You step out, what does that leave? That leaves a vacuum where people aren’t going to get that perspective.”
Adams, who has a book on the coronavirus response slated to publish this fall, has his sights trained on combating the scientific misinformation that blossomed during the pandemic, frequently among right-wing communities and public figures.
“I was saying the same things that other public health advocates were saying, but I was saying them while standing next to Donald J. Trump. And by doing so people perceived what I was saying very differently,” he told STAT. “I had to learn that lesson the hard way that sometimes it’s not what you say, but it’s where you say it from and who you say it next to, and you just don’t have any control over that.
And, yet: “Yes, I would do it again. Yes, I have PTSD from having done it.”