Experts hope that President Donald Trump’s positive coronavirus test result will spur more Americans to wear masks and practice social distancing, as they see a public figure who typically shunned face coverings become one of more than 7.3 million diagnosed with COVID-19 in the United States.
"I think people who feel practicing social distancing and wearing masks are not effective may think twice and hopefully understand that it is an effective means" of controlling the spread of the coronavirus, said Dr. Marc Adler, chief medical officer of NYU Winthrop Hospital in Mineola. "When we see people who become ill it makes us always question, ‘Is that a risk for me? Do I need to change my behavior?"
Trump announced on Twitter early Friday morning that he and first lady Melania Trump tested positive.
The shocking development occurred after Trump and his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, sparred in Tuesday's debate over the president's approach to the COVID-19 crisis. Medical experts hope the news will magnify their message that precautions like face coverings can dramatically reduce the spread of the virus.
Trump and those who interact with him are regularly tested for the coronavirus. Yet, said Dr. Bettina Fries, chief of infectious diseases at Stony Brook Medicine, "Broad testing for everyone is not enough. You still need to wear a mask."
"I hope it makes people aware that this virus is abundantly present in our community and that exposure to many people, especially in the setting of not wearing a mask and not social distancing, puts people at risk, even those that have the privilege of the majority of people around them getting tested at a regular interval," she said.
Tests sometimes don’t detect the virus for days after infection, she said.
Fries said she recoiled at images of Trump in meetings and events without a mask, standing or sitting close to others, and at large political rallies where his followers were packed together, many without face coverings.
Perry Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health, said news of the president’s positive result "is horrible."
But, he said, by usually not wearing face coverings in public, Trump was sending a message that "masks don’t really matter, that masks aren’t particularly helpful, and that masks don’t stop the spread of disease."
Halkitis said that was "completely opposite to the message we’ve been giving in public health." And he added: "Even somebody who is the most powerful person in the world — a mask could have protected him, and a mask could have protected the people around him."
Dr. Brian Harper, chief medical officer for the New York Institute for Technology and a former Suffolk County health commissioner, said even though he hopes the president’s infection will help persuade people who have ignored mask-wearing and social distancing to follow the practices, "people are going to view this how they’d like to interpret it."
White House officials said Friday that the president is experiencing mild COVID-19 symptoms, though he was being taken to a military hospital as a precautionary measure.
"So if you don’t believe that COVID is a serious disease, then you’re going to look at this and, if the president does not become significantly ill, then you’ll interpret it as, ‘Well, it doesn’t seem to be a problem. The president is infected and he’s doing fine.’" Harper said. "Whereas if he does become ill, maybe individuals may take it a little more seriously, or they might just turn around and say, ‘Well he’s an elderly individual … and therefore that’s the reason why he became ill.’"
Part of the challenge, Harper said, is people "don’t have a full understanding of how the disease works."
Although Trump reportedly has mild symptoms, that could change, said Dr. David Hirschwerk, an infectious disease specialist at New Hyde Park-based Northwell Health. Most people present no symptoms initially, and about 80% of those who contract the virus never get seriously ill, he said. About 20% get sick enough to require hospitalization.
Trump, a 74-year-old man who is considered to be overweight, is more vulnerable than most Americans, he said.
"Certainly men, and older men in particular, and those men who have underlying conditions like obesity, are more likely to have a course that leads to a more challenging illness and potentially hospitalization," he said.
Trump’s diagnosis comes as an increasing percentage of New Yorkers are testing positive for the coronavirus, driven by outbreaks in clusters on Long Island, New York City and the Mid-Hudson region.
It also comes as the weather is getting cooler, and New Yorkers are spending more time indoors, where the virus is significantly more likely to spread.
"The pandemic is far from over," Hirschwerk said. "And I don’t think we really are at the point where we can see the end."