Professors: Trump's infection 'changes the narrative'

Tom Duszynski

If the United States’ president can become infected with COVID-19, anyone can, and hopefully it will raise awareness about the seriousness of the disease and the need for continued precautions, say some political science and public health experts.

The college faculty were reacting to news that President Donald Trump has tested positive for COVID-19 and will spend a few days at a military hospital as a precaution. Trump “remains fatigued,” and as of Friday evening, had mild symptoms, White House officials said.

Professors: Trump's infection 'changes the narrative'

Matt Bergbower

“I think given that a high profile person like Donald Trump catches it ... I think it adds this renewed layer of seriousness to the virus and the pandemic,” said Matt Bergbower, Indiana State University associate professor of political science. “Even he can catch it, with all the resources he has and all the precautions that are available to him and all the medical knowledge that surrounds him.”

Bergbower believes “it provides a little bit of renewed respect for the virus and hopefully some renewed cautiousness about it.”

With next week’s vice presidential debate, he believes Mike Pence might be challenged on the administration’s response to the pandemic. Trump’s testing positive “changes the narrative” and could prompt questions about “should we be using and encouraging more precautions.”

Pence “ought to be pushed on it, and I think a good moderator will do it during the debate,” Bergbower said.

He also anticipates speculation about the “what if’s” and 25th amendment, should Trump become seriously ill.

The Constitution’s 25th Amendment spells out the procedures under which a president can declare himself “unable to discharge the powers and duties” of the presidency.

If Trump were to make that call, he would transmit a written note to the president pro tempore of the Senate and the speaker of the House. Pence would serve as acting president until Trump transmitted a written declaration he was fit to resume the duties of the president.

The vice president and a majority of either the Cabinet or another body established by law, can also declare the president unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, in which case the vice president would “immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President” until Trump could provide a written declaration to the contrary, the Associated Press reported.

Bergbower doesn’t see either of those scenarios playing out. The president has access to medical resources the general public does not have access to. “He’ll get the care,” Bergbower said.

‘A really clear message’

President Trump’s testing positive for COVID shows “that anyone can be affected. This is the most protected man in the country,” said Tom Duszynski, IUPUI director of epidemiology education for the Fairbanks School of Public Health.

“Unfortunately, he was infected. I think that should be a really clear message — this virus doesn’t care who you are. If you’re not going to take the simple steps of protecting yourself, then your risk increases of catching this disease.”

It also reinforces that the virus is still out there, he said.

“In Indiana, even though we’ve gone to Stage 5, this is still an active pandemic,” Duszynski said. “We still need to do those things that public health has been telling people to do, which is wear a mask, stay physically distant and use good hand hygiene.”

If people don’t take those steps, “Then we’re going to see transmission occurring. I think that’s exactly what happened here,” he said. “We’ve had a situation where unfortunately someone exposed various levels of government and eventually it worked its way to the president.”

Also, those with added risk factors — if they are older, have diabetes, heart trouble or are overweight — they are at greater risk for severe disease and a severe outcome, he said.

Asked if the president’s COVID-19 diagnosis might be an opportunity for him to be more proactive in advocating precautions such as wearing a mask, Duszynski said, “I think that would be a strong public health message.”

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at sue.loughlin@tribstar.com Follow Sue on Twitter @TribStarSue.

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