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Doctor Comments On The Health Messaging Of The Trump Administration


Like New York, many places around the country are still reeling from the coronavirus. At the same time, states including Georgia, South Carolina, parts of Tennessee have begun to reopen. States like Maryland and Ohio are beginning to lay out exactly what it will take for life there to begin to go back to normal. Well, for days now, President Trump has had one message - get the country and the economy up and running. Here he is yesterday.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We want to get our country open, and the testing is not going to be a problem at all. In fact, it's going to be one of the great assets that we have.

KELLY: Well, talking about testing is one way the administration is trying to prepare Americans for the moment when social distancing is relaxed. What else should leaders be telling citizens about the next phase of this pandemic? We're going to put that question and others to Ezekiel Emanuel? He is an oncologist, a bioethicist. He was health policy adviser in the Obama administration.

Dr. Emanuel, welcome.

EZEKIEL EMANUEL: Great to be here with you.

KELLY: So you've had some serious experience figuring out how to get the message out on big health care challenges. This is about the biggest any of us I hope will ever live through, which prompts me to throw a big-picture question to you to begin with. What role does the messaging, public messaging, play at a moment like this?

EMANUEL: Oh, it's absolutely vital. You've got to have 330 million Americans adhering to public health measures, whether it's physical distancing or it's wearing masks, avoiding large crowds. It's very important that the message be communicated, be communicated consistently and, most importantly, that the leaders, you know, walk the talk. I mean, that's just a - it's a trite phrase. Everyone uses it. And it's vital to get - convincing people to trust what is being said.

KELLY: Do you have an example in mind when you say that, walking the talk?

EMANUEL: Well, I think this issue of being physically distanced, you know, when they hold the press briefings in the White House and they're all cramped up on stage - not a good example. When they're all - you know, the famous touching of the face or shaking of the hands when President Trump shook hands with all those CEOs when all the messaging coming out of the administration, his own administration, was don't do that. That's a bad thing to do. And yet - so, I mean, there's just a lot of these messages. And I think, you know, none of us like to wear face masks. You know, they fog up your glasses. They're uncomfortable. You can't actually see people's facial expressions. They're very, very problematic. On the other hand, they're important for public health. And we should be setting a role model. It shouldn't be the president saying that's for other people.

KELLY: So how do you walk the line for this moment where we are now - you know, however many weeks into this - still trying to remind people, look, you can't let up, you have to be careful, you do have to wear the mask and do all the other things - even as you're trying to start preparing people for a moment when social distancing will be lifted?

EMANUEL: Well, look, I think the president's plan that was released - whatever - 10 days ago or something - had a few things right in it. You know, the first thing is that it was a phased plan. We're not flipping a light switch as Tony Fauci says over and over again. It's got to be in phases. And that was right. They had three phases. Second, not all businesses are going to be treated the same. Some businesses are going to open later because it's impossible to physically distance. Some are going to be open sooner because you can physically distance. Sports stadiums are not likely to be open. You can't, you know, prevent people from cheering and spewing stuff into the fan base or crowding at concession stands.

On the other hand, restaurants you can probably do it. So those are good and I think right recommendations that we have to make these distinctions. I also think we have to prepare people for the timeline, and we have to have consistent policies for the timeline. You know, we are not going to have a vaccine for 12 months no matter what we do. And that's the earliest we could have it. So people have to be prepared for this long timeline.

KELLY: Right.

EMANUEL: You know, Winston Churchill communicated that perfectly to people. This war, you know, he made clear is not going to be over. It's going to be toil and tears and sweat. And I don't think we've been communicating that to people. Oh, we're going to be open, you know, in a month. No. We might have a few more stores open, but society is not going to be back to normal. Normal is, you know, 2021 fall at the earliest.

KELLY: 2021 fall, OK.

EMANUEL: Yeah, at the earliest.

KELLY: We've just got 30 seconds or so left, but as someone who is a veteran of many White House briefings as you have watched these play out at the White House, is there, you know, a particular something on your mind that you wish you could get back in there and just say, look, guys, this is the message that's got to get out there?

EMANUEL: Yeah. I think - people, we have to adhere to the physical distancing and all the other measures, wearing the masks, et cetera.

KELLY: Right.

EMANUEL: And I also really think another...

KELLY: Just a brief one, yep.

EMANUEL: Another really important one is to remind people that we're all in it together and that what you do affects everyone else, and this is a collective effort. And I think that's really important. I also think they should be shorter to recognize we've got discipline and we want you working on the problem, not spending all your time sitting up there for two hours while we take questions from the press.

KELLY: That is Ezekiel Emanuel. He is the vice provost for global initiatives and chair of the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania. He was a special adviser for health policy in the White House Office of Management and Budget during the Obama administration. A lot of titles, a lot of experience there, Dr. Emanuel.

Thank you for joining us.

EMANUEL: Thank you for having me, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.