Public health officials continue to warn older Americans that they are the most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus, but the nation’s three most prominent men in their 70s – Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and President Donald Trump – don’t seem to think the precautions apply to them.
Sanders, Biden and Trump have all kept up their normal schedules in recent weeks even as the nation’s top doctors and disease specialists have emphasized that many of the most serious coronavirus cases are occurring in people over 60. In guidance in recent days, those health experts have advised older Americans to rethink daily activities that could put them at risk – like boarding planes or attending large gatherings. But so far the presidential campaign has showed no signs of slowing down, despite the risks to Trump, Biden and Sanders and the many voters they come in contact with.
So older Americans at home are essentially looking at a split screen: Health officials advising them to scale back in all their public interactions; and three men hoping to run the country for the next four years who don’t seem to be heeding that advice.
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Never mind that presidential campaign rallies often draw out thousands of people who can be pressed tightly together in school cafeterias, gymnasiums and event venues. At a moment when health officials are asking older Americans to change their routines, the campaigns seem to think the benefits of getting before the voters outweigh the risks.
Sanders, 78, has deflected questions about his age and the threat that the virus poses with humor. When asked Monday whether he was listening to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for those over 60, the Vermont senator brushed off the question during a roundtable on the virus.
“I’m running for president of the United States and that requires a lot of work,” Sanders said, a deflection that was similar to the one he offered to CNN’s Jake Tapper over the weekend during an appearance on “State of the Union.” On Monday, Sanders refused to offer any specifics on how the risks associated with the pandemic were affecting his campaign’s operations, beyond noting that his campaign does not hold a rally “without first conferring with local public health officials.”
“I think that every organization in America is taking a hard look at what the coronavirus will mean to their operations, and, yes, that is true of our campaign as well,” Sanders said, before stating that he didn’t want to talk about politics.
Though there’s no indication Sanders will slow down his campaign as a result of the coronavirus crisis, he told CNN’s Chris Cuomo on Monday that his campaign was thinking about his possible exposure to the virus.
“I have used more hand sanitizer in the last two weeks than I’ve used in my entire life,” Sanders said.
Though Trump, 73, came into close contact with a conservative leader and two congressmen, US Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Doug Collins of Georgia, who interacted with an attendee at the Conservative Political Action Conference who later tested positive for the coronavirus, Vice President Mike Pence could not say during a briefing Monday night whether Trump had been tested for coronavirus. (Gaetz and Collins have voluntarily quarantined themselves).
“I just simply don’t know what the White House physician has recommended to the President,” Pence said during a White House briefing on the virus. He noted that the main task of the White House physician “is to see to the health and well-being of the President of the United States, and we’ll get you a very direct answer on that.”
Later Monday, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement that Trump has not been tested for the coronavirus.
“The President has not received COVID-19 testing because he has neither had prolonged close contact with any known confirmed COVID-19 patients, nor does he have any symptoms,” Grisham said. “President Trump remains in excellent health, and his physician will continue to closely monitor him.”
Over the weekend, Trump – who has long admitted he is a germaphobe and was quoted in 1999 stating that the practice of the handshake was “barbaric” – told reporters that he was “not concerned at all” about his potential exposure to the virus.
Though there are currently no scheduled rallies on the President’s schedule, a source told CNN’s Betsy Klein that events “are proceeding as normal until told not to.” “They will not want to take the lead on canceling campaign events, and will only do so if and when the Sanders and Biden campaigns cancel events,” the source told CNN.
Trump showed no indication whatsoever that he was thinking of canceling campaign rallies when he spoke to reporters Saturday before a dinner at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida club.
“We’ll have tremendous rallies,” he said. “We’re doing very well. We’ve done a fantastic job, with respect to that subject, on the virus.”
The one campaign that did appear to be adjusting to the coronavirus outbreak Monday is Biden’s. More than a dozen bottles of hand sanitizer were available at a Monday night event in Detroit for Biden, who is 77. Volunteers and staff took the added precaution of squirting sanitizer into voters’ hands as they entered.
The former vice president is perhaps best known for his mastery of the rope line, where he is a close talker who lingers in a handshake and sometimes talks to voters eye to eye with his hands on their shoulders. During an interview with NBC on Monday, Biden said he was doing more fist bumps instead of shaking hands.
“I’m looking to the CDC for advice on that,” he said when asked whether his campaign was reconsidering rallies going forward. “We’re going to follow the recommendations of the experts … and if they conclude that there shouldn’t be big indoor rallies, then we’ll stop big indoor rallies. We’re going to do whatever they say.”
Still, at a time when businesses all over the country are canceling conferences, encouraging employees to telework and scaling back travel, it seems strange that the three men who would be in charge of setting the health and safety agenda for the nation are doing their best to project an image of “business as usual.”
CNN has been asking the campaigns for more than a week whether there have been changes in protocol due to the coronavirus, but they have declined to offer any specifics.
Trump’s blasé attitude about gathering thousands of people at rallies seems to be in keeping with his approach toward the coronavirus, which has been to underplay the risks at every turn.
There is perhaps also an element of machismo in this for all of them. Sanders and his surrogates have been hammering the message that he runs circles around his opponents with his breakneck schedule, a message that was amplified after he had a heart attack last year.
Trump’s aides often note what they describe as the President’s unique good health and stamina. And when Biden was told he was too old to run for president by a voter in Iowa last year, he challenged him to a pushup contest.
The Biden campaign has said it will closely follow guidance from federal and local health officials about the events it holds and how it executes them. “At the same time, we will continue to run an aggressive, national campaign to win the Democratic nomination and defeat Donald Trump,” a Biden campaign official told CNN’s Eric Bradner.
During Monday night’s news conference and a Sunday appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Surgeon General Jerome Adams noted that top health officials now know a lot more about who is at risk.
“Average age of death for people from coronavirus is 80. Average age of people who need medical attention is age 60,” Adams said Sunday on “State of the Union.” “We want people who are older, people who have medical conditions, to take steps to protect themselves, including avoiding crowded spaces, including thinking very carefully about whether or not now is the time to get on that cruise ship, whether now is the time to take that long-haul flight. For most people, you’re going to be fine. But if you have medical conditions, or you’re older, now is the time to rethink that.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, emphasized during a Sunday interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the risk of getting into trouble with the coronavirus is “overwhelmingly weighted towards people with underlying conditions and the elderly.”
“It’s our responsibility to protect the vulnerable,” Fauci said. “When I say protect, I mean right now, not wait until things get worse, say no large crowds, no long trips and above all don’t get on a cruise ship.”
But standing next to Pence on Monday at the White House, Fauci was more cautious when asked whether he would discourage campaign rallies.
“I can’t comment on campaign rallies. It really depends,” Fauci said noting that the virus is “something in motion.”
“This is an evolving thing,” Fauci said. “If you’re talking about a campaign rally tomorrow in a place where there is no community spread, I think the judgment to have it might be a good judgment. If you want to talk about large gatherings in a place where you have community spread, I think that’s a judgment call and if someone decides they want to cancel it, I wouldn’t publicly criticize them.”
CNN’s Annie Grayer, Betsy Klein, Jim Acosta and Eric Bradner contributed to this report.