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Public Health Experts Worry About Trump's Shifts In Messaging


A week ago, President Trump extended federal social distancing guidelines. Here's what he said.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead. We're going to go through a very tough two weeks.

KING: He said at the time if more Americans stayed home, then fewer people would die. But then a few days later, a reporter asked him a question, and the president sounded impatient.


TRUMP: We have to get this country open, Jeff. It has to get open.

KING: Now, he insists he's just being optimistic. But public health experts are worried about the way his message is always shifting. Here's NPR's Scott Detrow.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: When leaders are trying to get people to change their behavior during an outbreak, one of the most important things they can do, according to Susan Krenn, is to repeat the same message over and over.

SUSAN KRENN: The more you get that message and from the more channels you get it and that it's consistent, the quicker you're going to be to respond to the actual action being required.

DETROW: Krenn is the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs and has worked on and studied a lot of outbreaks. Asking the entire country to stay home and put life and commerce on hold is unprecedented. Still, Krenn says the same basics of public health messaging apply during this pandemic - be clear, consistent and accurate.

KRENN: And I think also actionable. So how do we actually respond? What is the requirement from the public to actually respond to the crisis?

DETROW: It's hard to see how President Trump's messaging fits those standards. Last Tuesday when he formally extended social distancing guidelines for a month, the president spoke graphically about what would happen if life went on as usual.


TRUMP: You would have seen people dying on airplanes. You would have been seeing people dying in hotel lobbies. You would've seen death all over.

DETROW: At other times, Trump seemed more focused on the economic downside.


TRUMP: You go from having the most powerful economy in the world and from other countries that are doing well to being everything is shut down. It's very sad. But we're going to get it going.

DETROW: As the week went on, Trump sounded more and more impatient with his own policy just as he had been in the days leading up to the extension. Here's the president Saturday.


TRUMP: You know, I had an expression - the cure can't be worse than the problem itself, right? I started by saying that and I continue to say it. The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself. We got to get our country open.

MARC LIPSITCH: There are lots of worries. It's hard to rank them.

DETROW: Marc Lipsitch is the director of Harvard's Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics. Those worries concern the president's shifting messages.

LIPSITCH: One is that people will not take adequate measures to protect themselves and their communities. Another is that people will lose faith in the good work that public health agencies are doing because they don't understand the reasons for it and they don't understand the variability in it.

DETROW: Lipsitch and other public health experts are concerned that if people go back to life as usual too soon, virus transmission will soar again and a second wave could do even more damage. Many people take their cues from President Trump, and if he gets impatient with social distancing, they very well could, too, though polls show that most people say they're following the guidelines. Still, there's no question many Americans are frustrated and just want to know when life can get back to normal. Susan Krenn says there's no answer for that right now.

KRENN: And it's OK I think to say, this is what we know, this is what we're asking you to do now. We're also investigating these options, and we simply don't know. I think it's OK to say we don't know because, frankly, nobody knows everything there is to know about this virus.

DETROW: Here's how President Trump answered that question this weekend.


TRUMP: I can't tell you a date, but I think it's going to be sooner rather than later.

DETROW: For now, the federal guidelines will be in place through the end of the month.

Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOE'S "TREMOLO AND DELAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.