As the president woke Monday to exhort for the hundredth time that we should “OPEN THE SCHOOLS!” he had to do so despite a new warning from his heretofore favorite task force coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx. She’s the one who’d gushed over the president for being “so attentive to the scientific literature and the details” and sat still as he speculated that disinfectants might do for our insides what they do for a ring around the bathtub.
But in an interview on CNN on Sunday, Birx acknowledged that “we’ve entered a whole new phase” where “the virus is extraordinarily widespread” in rural and urban areas alike, and maybe in your own home. She suggested we might want to wear masks indoors if we live with someone vulnerable.
That was a breathtaking reversal but that didn’t stop Trump, shorn of his last scientist, from blowing it off as just another attempt by his enemies to make him look bad: “In order to counter Nancy, Deborah took the bait & hit us. Pathetic!” He was referring to Nancy Pelosi’s private comment last week that COVID-19 was in the “horrible hands” of the enabling Birx, followed by the House Speaker’s public declaration of “no confidence” in the task force coordinator on Sunday.
It’s about time Birx acknowledged reality and perhaps, if her credibility hasn’t already been squandered, to alter it. By the standard Birx laid out, 34 states have a level of infection that should keep schools closed. The other 16 would still have to prove that they have the money, time and capacity to upgrade their buildings. The doctor will have to stay strong given how much Trump’s staked on reopening. How go the schools, so go his beautiful economy and rallies. All that stands between us and reopening now, with Fauci sidelined, is Birx.
There’s no help coming for parents from Admiral Brett Giroir, the one who is always just about to fix our testing problem and who finally conceded that mask-wearing is the single most effective preventive measure we have. Yet he’s too afraid of Trump to answer yes to whether Trump should issue a national mandate to require them. Trump’s newest senior adviser, former talk show host Steve Cortes, says kids will be fine and “Hopefully grandma can stay somewhere else.” Is he thinking along the lines of old Aunt Edna strapped to the roof of the Griswolds’ car on the way to Wally World? Education Secretary Betsy DeVos declares, with absurd but alliterative authority, that children should go back to school because they are “stoppers” not “spreaders.”
To combat that, Birx will have to keep up her siren call to arms against the virus she’s previously talked down. She was beloved on Fox for countering the supposed virus hysteria from the libs. She played peacemaker in a marriage going sour between Fauci and Trump as if it were for the sake of the children and not for her own.
With the breakdown in Trump’s White House almost complete, it would be better to conclude that Birx hadn’t been evil, just weak, and to give the one person left inside the tent the space to make the case that no one’s a stopper and many are potentially spreaders. To the extent kids weren’t, it was because schools were closed and families locked down back in March.
Fast forward to August and Trump insists that kids will only get the “sniffles,” his pet name to trivialize COVID-19, if they return to class, ignoring that kids don’t live alone in studio apartments. They live with, are taught by, cleaned up after, and chauffeured by adults, some in buses with wheels that go round and round but don’t multiply. The shortage of yellow buses to meet the demand of socially distanced riders rivals that of RVs. Schools are less like offices than sports (baseball, anyone?) and bars (the worst), or sports bars, the worst of both: loud talking, apple juice spewing, touching everything they pass, inescapably bumping into each other. As at Yankee stadium, hygiene will be tough. School bathrooms will be one customer at a time using toilets without lids, spraying whatever, wherever. The question isn’t whether students are spreaders, it’s whether they will turn out to be super spreaders, the little buggers.
And new data argues they may well be, if Trump has his way. In Georgia, when 344 campers and counselors were tested, 260 tested positive. The camp, which thought it was operating safely but had too much singing and cheering and too little mask wearing, closed. In Greenfield, Indiana, a junior high school had to close one day after reopening when a student tested positive.
And in Florida, where the policy of Gov. Ron DeSantis is to undercount cases, there’s been a massive uptick in child infections. Trump’s pulled out his biggest gun on this one. Making parents feel guilty is child’s play, literally. He’s pushed aside his real need—to revive his beautiful economy—and emphasized what’s best for the little children. The horrors that will befall them should we not open: their development, their socialization, their mental health. Another semester learning new math from old math parents, they’ll never be able to do long division. But isn’t that what Venmo is for?
If only the CDC were still fully alive. Unfortunately, the eighth wonder of the public health world, its jurisdiction already cut, was slagged by Trump when it came out with guidelines for school openings he didn’t like and, in a subsequent edition, softened them. Trump also threatened to withhold billions of dollars in aid from those states that defy his plea, a reminder to those Republicans—looking at you, Susan Collins—who said that Trump had learned his lesson after getting caught shaking down the Ukrainian president for dirt on his opponent. Not even impeachment is a teachable moment when it comes to Trump.
Of course, what’s good for Trump and what’s good for the rest of us isn’t the same. If going back to school was such a slam dunk, why didn’t the most influential parent in America get his son’s school, mysteriously blessed with millions of dollars in scarce PPE funds back in the spring, to open in the fall, or move his son to a school that would?
The harsh fact of life in August 2020 is, as Birx finally admitted, a Category Five storm, worse than what we faced in March, against which we are unfurling an umbrella from a gift bag. The guidance we’re not getting from the White House would fill five columns.
I won’t report the current death toll. By the time you read this, at least 1,000 more people will have lost their lives, about one a minute. Whether you know one of the stricken or not, each is a tragedy. Even the deniers and maskless among us will feel heartsick if some of them are children.