As the US death toll from the coronavirus surpassed 225,000 people, President Donald Trump, down in the polls and lacking a coherent message as Election Day looms, has taken to calling COVID-19 a “Fake News Media Conspiracy” even as cases and hospitalizations surge around the US.
“COVID, COVID, COVID,” Trump has said both at rallies and on Twitter in the past few days, showing frustration with the pandemic that his administration openly refuses to contain and that spread through Vice President Mike Pence’s office this weekend. Trump has been searching for a strong message to propel him through the final week of campaigning, especially after his convoluted and false attacks trying to paint Joe Biden as corrupt have failed to land outside far-right circles.
Trump tweeted Monday morning: “We have made tremendous progress with the China Virus, but the Fake News refuses to talk about it this close to the Election.” (On Friday, the US hit its highest-ever cases of COVID-19 in a single day, over 80,000, with huge increases in the Midwest and Sun Belt states. Hospitalizations jumped in at least 38 states last week, reported the Washington Post. Hospitalizations across the US are up 40% in the last month, and many rural hospitals in states like Wisconsin and Idaho are already at capacity.)
He added, “COVID, COVID, COVID is being used by them, in total coordination, in order to change our great early election numbers.” (Trump has been down in the polls for months.)
He concluded, “Should be an election law violation!” (No election law is being violated by reporters asking the president about a lethal virus, and the First Amendment protects freedom of the press.)
At a rally in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on Monday morning — the first of three such events in the swing state that day — Trump’s supporters echoed the president’s language and sentiment.
“It’s just COVID, COVID, COVID, and nothing about President Trump’s accomplishments,” said Karen Fahie, 60, from Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. “Nobody wants to hear that over and over again.”
Trump has taken to mocking the virus during his rallies, repeating the term "COVID" in exasperation for dramatic effect. Last Wednesday, during a rally in North Carolina, he at one point repeated “COVID” 11 times.
Shortly after Fahie spoke to BuzzFeed News, Trump repeated “COVID, COVID, COVID” during his speech to the Allentown crowd, on a rainy morning where thousands filed into the parking area of a local business, Hovertech International, for a last-minute rally.
His supporters at the rally told BuzzFeed News that they agree with the president that the media is focused too much on the pandemic.
“It’s 24/7 and I think it’s used to keep everybody scared to death, scared to walk out of their house,” said David Mitchell, 58, from Point Pleasant, New Jersey. “I think they’re using it to control us. Everybody’s scared to death to live their lives the way they used to.”
Mitchell argued that by constantly reporting on COVID-19, the media makes Trump the scapegoat.
“Number one, it keeps the country shut,” said Mitchell, “which destroys the economy, and then they blame him for the economy being bad.” (Other countries, such as Australia, South Korea, and Vietnam, have navigated containing the virus and opening businesses. Experts have said the US’s failed response has hurt the nation’s economy.)
Others agreed with Mitchell. “I feel like the way the media spins this virus makes everybody way more paranoid than they need to be,” said Eddie Demarie, 18, from Phillipsburg, New Jersey.
But COVID-19 cases are surging, including in states like Wisconsin that are key to Trump’s reelection hopes. No state has seen a decline in positive numbers in the last two weeks, although some states — including Colorado, New Mexico, Michigan, Wisconsin, Alabama, Vermont, and Rhode Island — have jumped up 75% in confirmed cases in that time.
On Monday, the president called it a “Fake News Media Conspiracy,” arguing that numbers were only up because testing is up, which is factually incorrect. “Many young people who heal very fast. 99.9%. Corrupt Media conspiracy at all time high. On November 4th., topic will totally change. VOTE!” tweeted Trump.
Many young people actually do not recover easily from the virus, with a study showing one in five have symptoms weeks after their diagnosis and a growing legion of thousands of “long-haulers” who’ve been suffering chronic health problems from the coronavirus.
During last week’s presidential debate with Joe Biden, the last before the election, Trump claimed that numbers are going down — despite evidence to the contrary.
“There was a spike in Florida, and it’s now gone,” the president said, despite Florida cases being up at least 25% in the last two weeks. “There was a very big spike in Texas; it’s now gone. There was a very big spike in Arizona; it’s now gone. And there were some spikes and surges and other places; they will soon be gone.”
Cases in Texas and Arizona are both up at least 25% in the last two weeks. Some areas in Texas are preparing refrigerated trucks in case of an overflow in deaths.
“It will go away, and as I say, we’re rounding the turn,” he continued, “we’re rounding the corner, it’s going away.”
On Monday, the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, repeated his Sunday comments that Trump had no intention of attempting to control the virus across the country, indicating that this could be the administration’s argument through Election Day.
“We’re going to defeat the virus,” said Meadows on Monday, noting instead the administration’s focus on supporting the development of vaccines and treatments.
In reality, multiple companies are racing to produce a vaccine, but none have finished their late-stage clinical trials, all of which are being tested in tens of thousands of people. There is still no cure for COVID-19. The first treatment approved by the FDA last week, remdesivir, offers only limited help reducing hospital stays and has had mixed results.
“We’re not going to control it. We will try to contain it as best we can,” said Meadows.
On Monday in Allentown, Shari Mintzer, 57, of Souderton, Pennsylvania, said she thought the president could be more “reassuring” and “informative” in his comments about COVID.
“I think there is possibly another wave coming, but I think everybody understands it now and they know what to do and what not to do, and I think that will make a difference,” she told BuzzFeed News.
Trump’s attention is largely elsewhere.
The Senate is expected to vote Monday to confirm US federal judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court for a lifetime appointment after ramming her nomination through the Senate following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg last month.
The Rose Garden event where Barrett's nomination was announced became a superspreader COVID-19 event, where over a dozen people contracted the virus including the president, who was then hospitalized for three days and received experimental treatments, and the first lady.
Currently at least five people in Vice President Mike Pence’s orbit, including his chief of staff, have tested positive for COVID-19. Pence, the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, has so far tested negative and is continuing to publicly campaign.