Trump’s COVID diagnosis will impact how Americans view their pandemic risk

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In medicine, there’s a saying: anecdote isn’t data. But what happens when the world’s most famous data point gets sick with Covid? 

President Donald Trump has for months publicly downplayed the risk from the virus, eschewing the use of masks himself, among his staff and at his rallies. That’s despite the fact that a prime vehicle for transmission is groups of people talking loudly in contained spaces — Washington in a nutshell. 

Now he’s sick. While Trump is in a higher-risk group because of his age and weight, he’ll also receive the best medical care on the planet. How severe his illness is and how quickly he recovers is likely to have a huge impact on the public’s perception of the disease and its risk.

On Friday morning, Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade, a regular booster of Trump, raised the possibility that if Trump gets better quickly, it may cause people to take the virus less seriously. 

“There’s a lot of people out there that say, ‘If I get it, I die,’” Kilmeade said on Fox. “What if the most famous person in the world gets it and in 10 days is back out? Doesn’t that also send a message that you can say whatever you want in stats and graphs, but I give you an example of somebody who is in that danger age of 74, who is out there, gets it and beats it — could that also send a message?”

Public health is a profession of percentages. With an infection like Covid-19, the vast majority of people recover. Age, pre-existing illnesses, weight and other health factors can influence a patient’s chances, but there’s no perfect way to predict any one individual’s outcome. Measures like mask-wearing and social distancing are meant to better the odds by getting fewer people sick and protecting the most vulnerable. 

The “anecdote isn’t data” saying is a direct reflection of that. Just because one person recovers from an illness, or responds to a drug, doesn’t mean that everyone — or anyone — else will. Health professionals look at data from research, and base their advice to medical professionals and the public on the same. 

“There is a genuine concern, and it’s not an unreasonable concern, that in the event that the president was to experience only mild illness, then he might seek to use that as evidence to further suggest that this is not as serious as what it actually is,” said Adam Kamradt-Scott, who researches how governments and organizations deal with health challenges at the United States Studies Centre. “That would be unfortunate, would be the diplomatic way of putting it.”

More than 200,000 Americans have died of Covid-19, and many more have been hospitalized. Trump is having mild symptoms so far. Most cases stay relatively mild, and it will take several days to know how Trump’s turns out.

“In many patients who do get very sick it happens around day eight to 10,” said Helen Boucher, chief of the Division of Geographic Medicine and Infectious Diseases at Tufts Medical Center.

In past remarks, Trump has made clear that older Americans are at risk. “It affects elderly people, elderly people with heart problems, if they have other problems, that’s what it really affects,” Trump said at a rally on Sept. 21.

But he’s also downplayed the risk for others, particularly the young. “Take your hat off to the young because they have a hell of an immune system. It affects virtually nobody,” Trump said at the rally. “It’s an amazing thing. By the way, open your schools!”

Others in his administration have done the same, such as his health adviser Scott Atlas, who has said that more Americans than other experts say may have some level of immunity to the virus. 

Trump’s political support is strongest with older Americans: An Aug. 13 study by the Pew Research Center found that 52% of registered voters over age 65 favored Trump, his best showing. 

That same group is most at risk of death and hospitalization. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people aged 65 to 74 are five times more likely to be hospitalized with the virus than people aged 18 to 29. Deaths in that group are higher as well: Out of 194,091 Covid-involved fatalities the CDC has counted in the U.S., 26% of them were in the 65-to-74 age group. 

“This is a reminder that COVID-19 is an ongoing threat to our country and can happen to anyone,” said Tom Frieden, director of the CDC under the Obama administration and a frequent critic of Trump’s response to the virus.

On Fox News, another of the network’s hosts, Stuart Varney, raised a similar possible reaction from the public. 

“The immediate reaction of a lot of people will be, ‘My goodness, if the president of the United States can get it, maybe I can, too.’”

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