Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (left), and Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, defended the Trump administration's response to the coronavirus before a House subcommittee July 31, 2020.

As Covid-19 Wears On, Polls Show Trust in Health Leaders Falling

More than 191,000 people in the U.S. have died from Covid-19, some one-fifth of the world total. Millions of Americans are facing hunger, loss of health insurance, mounting debt, and unemployment as the pandemic continues to hobble the U.S. economy. And, even as the national Covid-19 case totals fall, new data suggests growing mistrust of federal public health officials.

In polling results published Thursday, the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) finds that around one in three American adults do not trust the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “to provide reliable information on coronavirus.”

“The share of adults who trust the CDC to provide reliable information has decreased by 16 percentage points since April,” KFF reports. In addition, fewer respondents now say they trust Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the most prominent scientist leading the federal coronavirus response effort.

Much of that decline appears to be driven by growing doubt among Republican respondents. In April, around nine in 10 Republicans surveyed told KFF that they found CDC credible on coronavirus; that number is now closer to six in ten. Republicans were also likelier than Democrats and Independents to believe basic misinformation about the coronavirus response, such as that masks are harmful to health, or that hydroxycholoroquine — a drug that President Donald Trump has touted, with little evidence, as a cure to Covid-19 — is an effective treatment for the disease.

Of course, polls are always just approximations. (This one, which drew on interviews with 1,199 U.S. adults, has an overall margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points). But the results seemed to bolster longstanding fears about the politicization of the pandemic response. They may also support predictions from the early months of the pandemic that a contradictory, quick-changing White House response to the crisis would lead to confusion and, ultimately, a loss of public trust.

Indeed, shortly before KFF published its poll results, newly released interviews with Trump indicated that the President’s public statements about Covid-19 have sometimes differed sharply from his private, more dire, assessment of the virus.

“I don’t want people to be frightened,” he told journalist Bob Woodward in March, as the pandemic began to shut down much of the country. “We want to show confidence. We want to show strength.”

Also in the News:

• Wildfires swept through the West Coast states this week, charring more than 4 million acres in California, Oregon, and Washington, killing at least 23 people in California alone, leaving dozens more missing, and causing what Oregon Gov. Kate Brown called an ‘unprecedented’ situation that included the destruction of several small towns. called an “unprecedented situation” of small town destruction. In California, the smoke from the fires was so thick and so widespread that it smeared the skies statewide with a dark orange glow. Firefighters said the density of the smoke was also hampering their ability to effectively use planes to drop fire retardant on the spreading blazes. In Oregon, fires burned more than 900,000 acres in 72 hours; in Washington, the burnt acreage approached 600,000 acres, and across the region, air quality monitors reported dangerous levels of particulate pollution. Fire officials traced the devastating season to several factors – years of extended, tree-killing drought; unusually high temperatures; unusual and intense lightning storms; and fast-moving winds. While many factors influence wildfires, scientists have linked the extreme weather patterns in the West to the influence of global climate change. This week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom put the blame for the fire’s fury there: “I quite literally have no patience for climate change deniers,” he said. (The Washington Post)

• As school districts across the U.S. begin the new academic year with classes offered partially or completely online, health officials are worried that childhood vaccination rates — already slipping due to cancelled doctors’ visits during the pandemic — may decline even further. While certain details and exemption policies vary, state laws generally require kids to be inoculated against common pathogens including polio, mumps, and measles before they enter the classroom, providing parents and guardians with a strong incentive to keep up with their children’s shots. While many public experts support remote learning during the pandemic, some now worry that school officials will have a harder time contacting noncompliant parents and holding them accountable. Still, officials say they’re doing their best to help families make appointments with their doctors or get their shots at pharmacies, which were recently authorized by the federal government to administer routine childhood immunizations. Online classes won’t last forever, Nathaniel Beers, a member of the Council on School Health for the American Academy of Pediatrics, told Kaiser Health News. Beers added: “What would be an immense shame is if schools reopen in person and children are back together and we start getting outbreaks of other diseases that are preventable based on immunizations.” (Kaiser Health News)

• This week, the United Nations World Meteorological Organization (WMO) released a grim update on the global climate outlook. The report, compiled from the findings of several global science groups, predicts that there is a roughly 20 percent chance that average annual global temperatures will reach 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times by the end of 2024, surpassing a threshold that climate scientists have said could lead to heightened climate dangers. During the next five years, the report warns, people can expect increasingly unusual rainfall patterns, drier-than-normal conditions in many parts of South America, southern Africa, and Australia, and accelerating warming in the Northern hemisphere. The Arctic, meanwhile, will continue warming at twice the average global rate. “Now 2016–2020 is set to be the warmest five-year period on record,” wrote Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the WMO, in the report’s foreword. “This report shows that whilst many aspects of our lives have been disrupted in 2020, climate change has continued unabated.” (Associated Press)

• And finally: In a new study, researchers at the Free University of Berlin and the University of Göttingen report that more than 80 online-only, open-access scientific journals have vanished in the past two decades. The same fate has befallen around 100 journals in the social sciences and humanities, too. The average lifepsan of these vanished journals was around 10 years. In many cases, the research published in the journals was not preserved when the websites were taken down. The authors of the study also warned that 900 more journals are at risk of being shut down due to inactivity, and they fear that there will be more casualties among the unprecedented number of open access titles that have launched since 2009. Some efforts are underway to preserve this research, though. Plan S — an open-access publishing initiative supported by major European research funders — will put in place a mandate at the start of 2021 calling for open access journals to have established preservation plans in case they are shut down. (Science)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Lucas Haugen, Frankie Schembri, and Ashley Smart contributed to this roundup.

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.