As Dallas' Case Count Climbs, Trump's Diagnosis Inspires COVID-19 Conspiracies

President Donald Trump has offered too little leadership and help for small businesses.EXPAND
President Donald Trump has offered too little leadership and help for small businesses.
Gage Skidmore
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Early Friday morning, President Donald Trump tweeted that he and the first lady had tested positive for the coronavirus. The news prompted a social media firestorm, with supporters praying for his speedy recovery and critics indulging in schadenfreude.

Amid staunch partisans’ predictable reactions, a new theory has emerged that Trump is lying about contracting COVID-19 for personal and political gain. The likelihood of that is slim, though, said Mark Jones, political science professor at Rice University.

“Not only would we be focused on the pandemic,” Jones said, “but we’d be focused on how the pandemic can threaten the lives of people in vulnerable groups like himself, given his age and health condition.”

The president, 74, is at a higher risk of experiencing severe symptoms because of his age, weight and elevated blood pressure, according to Democracy Now! He has been undergoing treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center since Friday.

In local coronavirus news, Dallas County officials say the region is experiencing an increase in new COVID-19 transmissions, in part because of Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent move to relax business restrictions. And although Trump himself is now sick, political science experts say it likely won’t change the way his base views his leadership or the coronavirus.

Following the president’s announcement, critics took to social media to speculate that Trump may be lying about contracting the disease so that he can quickly “recover.” Doing that, they theorized, would bolster his claim that the virus is not as vicious as epidemiologists have said.

Then there were those who thought that Trump may be doing this for financial gain; he’s long touted hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 miracle drug, despite a lack of supporting evidence. The New York Times reported that the president has a small personal financial interest in the company that manufactures the medication.

Doctors treating the president have been administering the experimental drug remdesivir, according to The Hill.

“Trump has really played loose with the truth, and it can encourage people to not believe anything that he says,” said professor Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, chair of the political science department at the University of North Texas.

Trump has long sought to downplay COVID-19, yet the fact that he is now sick in the hospital probably won’t change many votes, Eshbaugh-Soha said. It also won’t alter the way people view the virus, unless the president experiences serious complications, he said.

One thing that could harm Trump’s chances of reelection would be if he remains too sick to hold campaign rallies, which excite his base, Eshbaugh-Soha said. Multiple outbreaks have been traced to such events, and CNN reported that one-time presidential candidate Herman Cain died shortly after attending a Tulsa rally. Like Trump, Cain was 74.

The president may be the most famous person with the disease, but it continues to wreck communities nationwide. In September, Dallas had been doing better in terms of new coronavirus case counts, said Dr. Philip Huang, director of Dallas County Health and Human Services. But with schools back in session and businesses operating at 75%, there is reason to worry, he said.

“We’ve been sort of plateauing, but now there are some indicators that we’ve been going up some,” Huang said. “So we’re very, very cautious and concerned.”

Friday, the county's health department counted 712 additional coronavirus cases from the previous two days. Officials had to skip Thursday’s report because of the implementation of a new system that will strengthen contact tracing efforts, according to a tweet by Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins.

North Texas will likely see an increase in hospitalizations and case rates within the next two to four weeks, said Dr. Erin Carlson, an associate clinical professor in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation at the University of Texas at Arlington. Inconsistency surrounding COVID-19 case counts can further lead people to doubt the veracity of experts’ claims, she told the Observer in August.

The fact that Trump has long publicly dismissed the virus as being “flu-like” could also contribute to further confusion and disinformation, Eshbaugh-Soha said.

Following the announcement of Trump’s diagnosis, Democratic lawmakers took to Twitter to express their sympathy. Dallas U.S. Rep. Colin Allred wrote that he wished the president and first lady a “full, speedy recovery and safe quarantine.” Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden tweeted that he was praying for the president’s health and safety.

By contrast, Trump mocked one-time opponent Hillary Clinton’s bout with pneumonia while on the 2016 campaign trail, according to Business Insider. Democratic lawmakers should avoid doing the same, Rice University's Jones said.

Social attitudes surrounding the coronavirus dictate how people behave, such as choosing to wear a mask, Carlson said.

Before becoming sick, Trump rarely wore a face covering in public.

“We need to make sure public opinion about masks is very positive,” Carlson said. “That positive message associated with the behavior matters in its acceptability. It really does.”

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