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Can we believe anything we’re hearing about President Trump and the coronavirus? | Column
Here is how to suss out the truth, writes the senior media writer at the Poynter Institute
President Donald Trump drives past supporters gathered outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.,  on Sunday. Trump was admitted to the hospital after contracting COVID-19. (AP Photo/Anthony Peltier)
President Donald Trump drives past supporters gathered outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., on Sunday. Trump was admitted to the hospital after contracting COVID-19. (AP Photo/Anthony Peltier) [ ANTHONY PELTIER | AP ]
Published Oct. 5, 2020

So let’s review.

On Thursday night, President Donald Trump phoned into Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News and said he had taken a COVID-19 test and felt fine. A couple of hours later, he tweeted that he had tested positive. By Friday evening, he was admitted to the hospital. By Saturday morning, the medical team treating him painted a rosy picture of Trump’s health, while Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, was leaking to reporters that the president’s condition deteriorated so rapidly that it was a major cause for concern, adding “we’re still not on a clear path to a full recovery.” Then, by Sunday morning, the medical team said Trump could be discharged from the hospital as early as today. Sunday evening, Trump said hello to supporters through the window of an SUV and then returned to the hospital.

When you add it up, this all happened in less than 72 hours. And when you add it all up, something doesn’t, well, add up.

Tom Jones
Tom Jones [ SHADD, DIRK | Tampa Bay Times ]

Once again, mixed messages and the feeling that there’s a total lack of transparency coming from the Trump administration has left us wondering what, if anything, is true.

Much of the blame can be directed toward statements made by Navy Cmdr. Dr. Sean Conley, the head of the Trump medical team whose initial press conference on Saturday was full of misleading answers and evasive statements. He even admitted in Sunday’s press conference that he wasn’t exactly forthcoming the day before when asked if the president had been on supplemental oxygen.

“I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude of the team, that the president, that his course of illness has had,” Conley said. “(I) didn’t want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction. And in doing so, came off like we’re trying to hide something, which wasn’t necessarily true. The fact of the matter is that he’s doing really well.”

Almost everything about that quote is flabbergasting and infuriating. But it’s also not unreasonable to suggest that Conley’s optimistic attitude was at the direction of Trump, who reportedly was furious with Meadows for contradicting the medical team on Saturday.

Even Conley’s press conference on Sunday — again full of half-statements, non-denial denials and double-talk — left more questions than answers. For instance, when asked what X-rays and CT scans of Trump’s lungs showed, Conley said there were “expected findings.” Expected findings? What does that mean?

When asked if Trump’s oxygen levels had dropped below 90%, Conley said, “it wasn’t in the low 80s or anything like that.” Again, Conley didn’t really answer the question.

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CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, said that “we have to sort of read between the lines here” when it comes to deciphering the information coming out of the press briefings.

“They are telegraphing concerns here and the next few days are going to be critical for him,” Gupta said. “He’s in the right place, he’s got great doctors, but this is a significant issue they’re dealing with.”

CNN’s Jake Tapper made an excellent point: Perhaps Conley and the medical team are telegraphing concerns to brilliant medical minds such as Gupta, but not to lay people (that’s most Americans) who don’t know the purpose of certain medications and which symptoms truly are life-threatening.

Honestly, it’s hard to know what to believe.

So where do we turn for information?

Well, medical experts such as Gupta are a good place to start. Such experts can take what information is coming out and relate what it means. These moments, when news outlets are turning to their medical correspondents, are when the coverage is at its best.

For example, during a special NBC report on Sunday, NBC News medical correspondent Dr. John Torres said, “The fact that he got the steroid, the fact that he got the dexamethasone, again, sends up a bit of a red flag that there is something going on here. He is a little worse off than what we’re hearing because I think they might be painting a bit of a rosy picture for everybody. To me, out of everything that Dr. Conley and the other doctor said, that is the most concerning part.”

These are the kinds of tidbits that help put everything a bit more into perspective, especially if we are not going to get the straight dope from official spokespeople. Instead of looking closely at videos of the president speaking or riding in cars and trying to figure out how well or sick he is, we should lean into the reporting and the analysis of medical experts who know what they’re talking about.

The other sources to trust: the reliable White House reporters who have sources in the administration and who are getting the real story. Reporters such as Maggie Haberman and Peter Baker of The New York Times, a variety of reporters at The Washington Post, including Josh Dawsey and Seung Min Kim, and network correspondents such as CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, ABC’s Jonathan Karl, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, CBS’s Weijia Jiang, PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor, as well as the Associated Press' Jonathan Lemire and many, many more are plugged in and have been more reliable than anyone speaking on behalf of the president, most particularly Conley and his medical team.

There is another aspect to this story that goes beyond the president’s health and that’s how this all could impact those who have not taken the coronavirus seriously. Let’s face it, we’re talking about many Trump supporters who aren’t as vigilant as they need to be when it comes to the coronavirus. Some news coverage showing the seriousness of this virus has been aimed at those people and that, too, is an aspect of this story worth pursuing.

Tom Jones is senior media writer at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times.

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