The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The elected officials who are still playing down coronavirus

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) speaks to reporters in July 2017. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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Even President Trump and his supporters on Fox News have come around to acknowledging the severity of the coronavirus pandemic and embracing the drastic measures that health officials say are necessary to prevent catastrophe. But as the country continues taking these steps, a handful of politicians are clinging to the idea that the virus is overhyped and suggesting that the response might be overzealous.

Chief among them is Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the chairman of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee who in an interview published Wednesday played down the deadliness of the disease.

“Getting coronavirus is not a death sentence except for maybe no more than 3.4 percent of our population [and] I think probably far less,” Johnson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

He added: “But we don’t shut down our economy because tens of thousands of people die on the highways. It’s a risk we accept so we can move about. We don’t shut down our economies because tens of thousands of people die from the common flu.”

Johnson added that he continued to urge people to follow guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and said he wasn’t necessarily differing with the decisions being made by the federal government and local authorities. But he cautioned against an overreaction.

The emphasis on the death toll is a familiar one, although many of its proponents have backed off it. Trump used to compare the spread of the coronavirus to the flu, but Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has noted that the mortality rate for the novel coronavirus is at least 10 times as high and, unlike the flu, there is no vaccine. The virus is also spreading quickly, and 3.4 percent (or even the lower estimates of 1 percent) could mean tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions of deaths if the spread is left unchecked. Johnson’s comments also come as there is increasing evidence that the virus could be very serious not just for older Americans but also for younger ones.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) played down the threat even more at an event in his home state.

Over the past four months, President Trump has regularly sought to downplay the coronavirus threat with a mix of facts and false statements. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

“They call it the coronavirus. I call it the beer virus. How do you like that?” Young said Friday in comments first reported locally Tuesday, referring to Corona beer. “It attacks us senior citizens. I’m one of you. I still say we have to as a nation and state go forth with everyday activities.”

Despite not being in Washington last week to vote on the initial relief package, Young said he opposed spending billions to combat the virus: “The president’s proposal sounds good — $50 billion, $50 billion we don’t have. We’re going to borrow the money from future generations to solve the problem right now that’s been created primarily by hysteria.” The Trump administration is floating a $1 trillion relief package.

It hasn’t been only Republicans, though.

After Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) ordered nonessential businesses, including casinos, to close for 30 days, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman (I) on Wednesday urged him to shorten the window to as few as eight days. She, like others, compared the situation to other outbreaks.

“In the past 20 years alone and without any shutdown, we have survived the West Nile virus in 2002, the SARS epidemic in 2004, the bird flu in 2005. 2006, e.coli. 2009, the Swine Flu. 2016, the Zika Virus. And every year also the general flu,” she said, according to the Nevada Independent. “And believe it or not, we’re still here.”

Las Vegas City Attorney Brad Jerbic echoed Goodman’s argument about the other outbreaks, saying, “This crisis, in my personal opinion, not legal opinion, is no different.” In response to concerns that people will die if the economy isn’t shut down, he said: “That happens every year. In a different form. In a different bug. In a different virus.”

Just like the comparison to the seasonal flu is dodgy, so, too, is the comparison to swine flu. It spread about as quickly as the novel coronavirus, but its mortality rate was one-50th as high — 0.02 percent — even if you accept the more conservative 1 percent rate for the coronavirus. Zika similarly had a much, much lower mortality rate, and the coronavirus is spreading much faster than the more deadly Ebola and SARS epidemics.

Another retired politician pushing the idea that the coronavirus is oversold is former congressman and GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul (Tex.). This week, he has continued to suggest that the situation is a “big hoax,” even as Trump and Fox News have backed off that characterization. Paul has also said that there is no “scientific” basis for claims by Fauci and other health officials about the coronavirus death rate, which is false.