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Downplaying Coronavirus and the New Town and Gown

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Journalist Bob Woodward’s new book, Rage, had pre-release bombshell when it was revealed last week that President Donald Trump essentially confessed to downplaying his knowledge of the coronavirus.

“I think Bob, really, to be totally honest with you,” the president said on audio tape to Woodward. “I always wanted to play it down. I still like playing it down. Because I don’t want to create a panic.”

It was Trump’s monumental miscalculation. As Benjamin Franklin might have said, “A stitch in time saves nine.” Or in the coronavirus situation 192,000 lives and counting. All dead Americans from the virus the president knew was five times more deadly than the flu. That’s what he told Woodward. And now that we know the result of inaction, forget the idea of “downplaying.” Woodward smells a cover-up when he sees one. Whatever you feel about the word, just think of the panic the Trump slow roll has created now in higher ed.

If states are a patch work quilt of governors trying to do their best without federal support, what of the chaos created now at every college and university in the country?  Each one is essentially on its own to maneuver and find a solution that may or may not work. Or to find something that is still based on an hypothesis, but sounds reasonable enough to keep the doors open.

Emil GuillermoEmil Guillermo

Some schools planned to start early, like Notre Dame, then reversed course. The California State University system cancelled classes early and went online. Now the system has announced massive layoffs.  Other schools were going hybrid, then remote only. Some were sending their students home after setting up shop and realizing it was a disaster. Now some schools are realizing, sending students home is like a super-spreader event. In those cases, campuses have become quarantine centers.

And then there’s testing. We have no national plan. What is the testing plan for schools? University of Illinois-Urbana after developing a quick testing method has become a model of sorts. But some schools still don’t test enough. Is one and done enough?

But if Trump, the down-player-in-chief is our national model, then maybe the message is we should all be doing as much as possible to obscure the truth with minimal testing and number fudging—so as not to panic the public. Is that really a Trump COVID “best practice”?


Just on Friday, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear announced his state’s latest count with 948 new cases of COVID-19, giving the state 55,704 cases. The state has 1,044 deaths, the third time in four weeks that more than 50 deaths have been announced.

The rise in the state’s overall numbers is mostly due to the numbers from higher ed.

Beshear reported 1,846 cases of COVID-19 among college students, two thirds of which come from the University of Kentucky. That would be about 1,218 cases.

Nearly 20 percent of Kentucky’s COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic have been among people in their 20s, even though that demographic makes up only 13.59 percent of Kentucky’s population, according to the Lexington Herald Leader.

That’s bad enough, but drop deeper from the state level down to the local numbers and the impact of the University of Kentucky is even more clear. The Lexington-Fayette County Health Department reported 149 new COVID-19 cases Friday morning, a new one-day record for the city (which has 6,833 cases since March). The top five one-day increases for Lexington have all come since Aug. 7. Four of them have come in the first 10 days of September. In other words, the increases are mostly due to the University of Kentucky students, more than 1,100 of the county’s cases including 51`new cases on Friday.

So the state says UK is responsible for about 1,200 cases. The county puts UK around 1,100. But the University of Kentucky only reports 432 cases active as of Monday. With 82 students who were isolated at on-campus frats or sororities.  The university’s on campus isolation is 169 students, but had 57 as of Monday, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.

432 cases? Apparently only part of the picture. Include those state and county numbers and you know the UK students with COVID are over 1,100. If you don’t include the off-campus numbers, the university looks only a third as bad as it might. If you include the off-campus numbers from the county, it’s more than 1,000 cases. How many schools are getting by with that kind of number fudge?

Not necessarily a “best practice,” not when lives are at stake and  you really want and need to know what’s going on. Of course, when you have the nation’s president admitting to downplaying things on a national level, that sets an example for any kind of president anywhere to follow, even at a place of higher ed.

Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. He writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. 

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