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OpinionColumnistsDan Janison

How Donald Trump's COVID-19 narrative collapsed en route to Election Day

A drive-thru coronavirus testing site in Lawrence last

A drive-thru coronavirus testing site in Lawrence last week. Despite increased testing, U.S. positivity rates and hospitalization rates are up. Credit: AP/Seth Wenig

Imagine if President Lyndon B. Johnson had run for a second term in 1968. Then imagine that Johnson kept complaining at rallies that the public was paying too much attention to the carnage in Vietnam. Would it have helped him?

President Donald Trump's fiery wreck of a COVID-19 political narrative continues to burn as the election clock ticks down. Last Sunday Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, delivered a sad declaration of surrender.

"We are not going to control the pandemic. We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation areas," Meadows said, "because it is a contagious virus, just like the flu."

The approach from the top is to remain equivocal about masks, social distancing, limited crowd sizes and other preventive measures while sniping at local governments that enforce federally-approved health guidelines.

Wait for vaccines and medicines, the White House seems to suggest.And deny all deficiencies in the administration's response to the pandemic.

"The Fake News Media is riding COVID, COVID, COVID, all the way to the Election," Trump complained this week. "Losers!"

Meadows' passive remarks were reminiscent of predecessor Mick Mulvaney's admission last year that the White House held up military aid to Ukraine because of Trump's wish for officials there to announce a criminal probe of U.S. Democrats.

Contrary to the president's posturing, the facts were plain, then as now.

Six months earlier, John Kelly, Trump's previous chief of staff, said in a public appearance that building a border wall "from sea to shining sea" would be a "waste of money." Now the project remains bogged down, marred by a private-fundraising scandal.

All over the electoral map, the coronavirus news is disturbing. On Tuesday, for example, the battleground state of Wisconsin broke its daily record for COVID-19 deaths (64) and new cases (5,262).

"It’s a nightmare scenario, frankly, that this could get quite a bit worse in the next several weeks or months before it gets better," Dr. Ryan Westergaard, of the state's health department, told reporters.

Cases are spiking elsewhere in the Midwest. Across the U.S. on Tuesday, 983 new coronavirus deaths and 74,410 new cases were reported. In most states, the average number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 rose by more than 5% in the past week.

"We are at another critical point in the pandemic response," said Adm. Dr. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary of health in the Trump administration.

The stories Trump has told about COVID-19 are now ash. His chatter about an "Easter miracle," chloroquine hopes, hot-weather relief and bleach-cure buzz all have come and gone.

As of Wednesday, the national body count had risen past 227,000. Sadly, no corner has turned. The "COVID, COVID, COVID" plague goes on. That is the true arc of Trump's story.