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Former Surgeon General Discusses Public Mistrust Of Health Officials


The United States continues to be the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. The Trump administration has been beset by scandals on its handling of the health crisis, and the president habitually and publicly contradicts his own officials on how to deal with the deadly disease. A new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll shows that a majority of Americans disapprove of the job the president is doing handling the outbreak.

Joining us now is Dr. Vivek Murthy. He served as the surgeon general under President Obama, followed by President Trump until 2017. He is now advising Democratic nominee for the presidency Joe Biden on the pandemic.

Welcome to the program.

VIVEK MURTHY: Thanks so much, Lulu. It's good to be with you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You worked for the Trump administration briefly. What has gone wrong, in your view?

MURTHY: The response to COVID-19, which should be driven by science and evidence, has instead been overtaken by politics. And that's muddied the waters, both in terms of the actions that we take but also in terms of the trust that we need to maintain with the public.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, definitely, the NPR polling shows that. The public has been given this consistently confusing messaging. Just this past week, President Trump disputed his own CDC Director Robert Redfield on the efficacy of masks and on when a vaccine will be available. And our poll shows that people are listening to the president, and there is a lack of faith, as you say, in public health leadership and institutions. There have been multiple stories that the CDC and elsewhere in the public health sphere is buckling to political pressure and intervention. Do you think that's true?

MURTHY: Well, I think what has been happening is that the input and the recommendations of scientists at CDC and elsewhere in government have been overridden most recently. And their recommendations at the CDC supposedly had made a change in recommendations, saying that it was no longer necessary to test people who were contacts of those who had COVID-19 if they didn't have symptoms. That was widely criticized by the scientific community. And now we understand why because it wasn't actually the decision of CDC scientists to put that guidance forward. In fact, it was the exact opposite of what they had recommended, and we now see that guidance has been changed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know the players here in the public health sphere. Do you think it is incumbent upon these leaders to speak out when this happens?

MURTHY: We have seen at times people like Tony Fauci and Dr. Redfield stood up and made important points about masks that had been then contradicted by the president. And the challenge is that we need more people to be doing that, and we need people to be doing that more consistently. This is a very unusual situation where we have seen a divergence - a sustained and disturbing divergence - between what scientists are saying and what politicians are saying. And that is extraordinarily destructive.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how do you suggest the course could be changed? You are advising the Biden campaign. What are you telling them?

MURTHY: When you start to put politics ahead of science, that's when you spell the end of a truly effective response. So it starts...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But isn't that cat out of the bag already, though? I mean, on the Republican side, the coronavirus isn't their top concern for this election. But to get out of this, we need a majority of Americans to row together. I mean, how do you actually do that now when the trust, as you say, has been eroded?

MURTHY: You have to rebuild that trust. And the way that you rebuild trust is you communicate openly and honestly with the public, not just when things are going well but especially when they're not. And you inspire trust by delivering on your promises. If you say that you're going to make testing available, then you got to make sure that testing is actually available. If you say that you're going to ensure that doctors and nurses and hospitals have protective equipment like masks, you have to deliver on those promises.

Yes, there has been a lot of damage to public trust, but that does not mean that it cannot be repaired. And it will take a sustained effort to communicate openly and honestly with the public. But it can be done. And it must be done.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Our poll, though, also shows the number of Americans who say they'll get the vaccine has dropped sharply in just a month. Only 49% say that they'll get vaccinated when a vaccine is made available. Last month, it was 60%. I mean, a vaccine won't end this, but it will be a major step. That is a very troubling statistic.

MURTHY: This number of people who are worried about a vaccine being rushed through and approved before the election includes many health care professionals that I talked to as well who, behind closed doors, say they're not sure if they would want to take a vaccine if they felt it was rushed through without proper consideration.

And so what we have to do - and even more so than ever - is make sure that the approval process for a vaccine is transparent. And that means that we have to have sufficient data from large-scale trials to demonstrate this vaccine is both safe and effective. It means that the FDA's scientists and its external advisory board have to weigh in publicly and share their opinion directly with the public. If these seem like measures that are extraordinary, it's because we are in an unusual time where we have damaged trust so badly that we have to go over and above to regain that trust. Otherwise, people will not trust the vaccine even if it's approved.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Dr. Vivek Murthy, former surgeon general.

Thank you very much.

MURTHY: Thank you so much, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 19, 2020 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous headline incorrectly referred to Vivek Murthy as the former attorney general. He is the former surgeon general.