Editor’s Note: Dr. Howard Koh is a physician, the former assistant secretary for health in the Obama administration, and professor of the practice of public health leadership at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Kennedy School. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN. This piece has been updated to reflect the latest news.
As the worst pandemic in a century spirals further out of control, the White House has been consistently inconsistent when it comes to its public messaging.
For weeks, America has gone without daily White House Coronavirus Task Force press briefings, which conveyed some useful information despite President Donald Trump’s attempts to promote unproven medical treatments. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert who became a prominent and trusted voice through the daily briefings this spring, has since been sidelined in recent weeks and attacked by fellow members of the administration. (Trump talked to Fauci on Wednesday after going more than a month without speaking, and a White House official told CNN the White House trade adviser Peter Navarro’s USA Today op-ed attacking Fauci was not approved and edited by the White House press office.)
The US has become the global epicenter of the pandemic, with more than 3.5 million cases and more than 140,000 deaths. The US now faces a replay of the horrific scenes from this spring, with hospitals scrambling to treat an overwhelming number of patients, labs fighting to dig themselves out from a backlog of tests and medical personnel reusing masks due to another shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE).
As of Tuesday, however, the White House has announced it will resume the daily briefings. This is the right decision, if done correctly, since national daily briefings would rally the country around a common public health agenda and reinforce the message that everyone must double down, not lighten up, on lifesaving preventive measures. These briefings would also push the White House Coronavirus Task Force to address pressing issues of the day and offer the media and the public an opportunity to hold the administration accountable for its response to this national crisis.
Briefings — preferably lasting no more than an hour, at the same time every day — should advance three critical themes: data, unified policies and personal narratives. Doing so would help engage all Americans and offer signs that their government has a plan for action.
Each session should start with top federal public health professionals explaining key data trends. Polling indicates that public trust is highest when health experts, rather than political figures, serve as the key messengers. Fauci should be front and center, joined by Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the task force, and others. White House officials should occasionally step in to host or moderate the conversation with the aim of legitimizing the science and supporting these health leaders and agencies.
Presenting public data about a worsening health crisis is difficult and uncomfortable. But an unflinching look at the facts would signal the administration’s willingness to confront the hard truth as a step toward putting forth solutions. Everyone needs to understand the risks of Covid-19, including surging cases among younger adults and the prevalence in nursing homes. Meanwhile, the average number of new deaths per day has been on the rise.
Health experts must translate the implications of the ever-changing science of Covid-19, including the mystery of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, newly described viral mutations and the evolving evidence regarding airborne transmission. Given the nationwide reckoning with racial injustice, the administration should focus on ways to support communities of color that face higher rates of infection and death.
Briefings should outline evolving policy recommendations and best practices. Since universal mask usage could save an estimated 45,000 lives by the fall, the administration should make it an immediate priority to issue a nationwide policy for its implementation.
Health leaders could use the briefings to explain testing recommendations, PPE shortages and any progress on vaccine development and therapeutics. Clinicians can highlight the importance of upcoming flu vaccinations and urge Americans not to skip medical visits, which has led to a rise in unrelated deaths.
Finally, to humanize the crisis, briefings should include personal narratives of those who have been touched by Covid-19 in so many ways. Personal stories from public figures like actor Tom Hanks (a recovering patient) could help convince skeptics of the very real dangers of the disease and rally people around preventive measures. The administration should also leverage social media to reach younger Americans.
Daily public communication can make all the difference. Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo held daily briefings over four months, helping the outbreak’s initial epicenter become a model of response and recovery. Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine held briefings most weekdays, translated in several languages.
As a former US assistant secretary for health and the former Massachusetts commissioner of public health, I saw firsthand the power of dedicated public outreach during emergencies like the 2001 anthrax attacks, the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, and the 2014 Ebola outbreak. In the last instance, Ron Klain, who became known as the “Ebola czar” under President Barack Obama, effectively maximized government-wide communication and coordination to assure the end of that crisis.
The US must confront the Covid-19 pandemic head on. As a first step, the Trump administration should focus on improving daily briefings grounded in science. Americans need to know that our nation has not given up. The best way to do that is to stop pretending that this emergency is over, face the public and arm everyone with lifesaving information, policies and guidelines before it’s too late.