U.S. President Donald Trump faced a backlash on Tuesday for removing his mask when he returned to the White House and urging Americans not to fear the COVID-19 disease that has killed more than 209,000 people in the country and put him in hospital.
Trump arrived at the White House on Monday in a made-for-television spectacle in which he descended from his Marine One helicopter wearing a white surgical mask, only to remove it as he posed, saluting and waving, on the mansion’s South Portico.
“Don’t let it dominate you. Don’t be afraid of it,” Trump said in a video after his return from the Walter Reed Medical Center military hospital outside Washington where he was admitted on Friday for the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“I’m better, and maybe I’m immune – I don’t know,” he added, flanked by American flags and with the Washington Monument in the background. “Get out there. Be careful.”
Trump, who received experimental treatment, has repeatedly played down the disease, which has killed more than 1 million people worldwide. The United States has the world’s highest death toll from the pandemic.
White House physician Dr. Sean. P. Conley, stressed that the Republican president, who is running for re-election against Democrat Joe Biden in the Nov. 3 election, would have world-class medical care available around the clock.
Trump has repeatedly flouted social-distancing guidelines meant to curb the virus’ spread and ignored his own medical advisers. He mocked Biden at last Tuesday’s presidential debate for wearing a mask when campaigning.
“I was aghast when he said COVID should not be feared,” said William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.
“This is a disease that is killing around a thousand people a day, has torpedoed the economy, put people out of work. This is a virus that should be both respected and feared.”
Democrats also weighed in. “This is a tragic failure of leadership,” Democratic Senator Chris Coons tweeted.
But Trump depicted himself as a man who vanquished the disease and emerged stronger.
“If the President bounces back onto the campaign trail, he will be an invincible hero, who not only survived every dirty trick the Democrats threw at him, but the Chinese virus as well,” he wrote on Twitter.
A Twitter post by Biden showed images of himself donning a mask and Trump removing his. “Masks Matter. They save lives,” the caption read.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said every precaution was being taken to protect the president and his family. Physical access to Trump would be limited and appropriate protective equipment would be worn by those near him.
Questions continue to swirl about the true state of Trump’s health after a weekend in which his doctors offered contradictory or opaque assessments of his condition.
His oxygen saturation dipped enough to require supplemental oxygen on Friday and Saturday and he will receive his last intravenous dose of the antiviral drug, remdesivir, at the White House on Tuesday, his doctors said.
Many aides and confidants have been diagnosed with the disease since his announcement last week that he had tested positive for it, intensifying scrutiny and criticism of the administration’s handling of the pandemic.
Trump has no public events listed for Tuesday and it is not clear when he will be able to resume a full schedule.
“I’m sure he’ll rest the next two days. And he’ll get going as soon as they say it’s OK to get going,” Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani told Fox News on Tuesday, adding that Trump would still do light work like making phone calls.
“You never know with this disease, but it seems like he is making a very rapid recovery and a strong one. And certainly his spirit is back. He’s raring to go,” Giuliani said.
Republican Senator Thom Tillis, who also tested positive for COVID-19 after a Sept. 26 White House visit, said on Twitter that Trump called him Monday night and said he was “feeling great and working hard.”
After recent polls showed Trump slipping further behind Biden, early voting data indicated that nearly 4 million Americans have already cast ballots four week before election day, suggesting there may be a record turnout.
The severity of Trump’s illness has been the subject of intense speculation, with some experts noting that, as an overweight, elderly man, he was in a high risk category.
#GaspingForAir began trending on Twitter after video showed Trump appearing to take several deep breaths while standing on the White House balcony.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN Trump looked good when he came out of the hospital, but noted that patients sometimes have a setback five days after they get sick.
“Sometimes when you’re five days in you’re going to have a reversal … It’s unlikely that it will happen, but they need to be heads-up (alert) for it,” Fauci said.