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Dr. Frank Luntz

Pollster and Political Analyst

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COVID-19 resurgence sparks debates on public health, politics

Sep 14, 2023

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Dr. Frank Luntz

Pollster and Political Analyst

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The COVID-19 pandemic shook the world in March 2020, reshaping major political institutions, global economies and entire societies. It also thrust public health into the spotlight of social, cultural and political debates.

COVID-19 case counts are rising again. It remains an open question how societies will choose to respond this time around, now that they have vaccines and improved treatments.

In this 34-minute episode of America Speaks, political analyst and pollster Dr. Frank Luntz joins former CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden to ask Americans broad questions about public health, vaccines and mandates, information sources, and health politics. The group debates how perceptions have shifted since the pandemic’s beginning and explores the emerging political divides.

Hello, I’m Dr. Frank Luntz, host of America speaks right here on straight arrow news with cases are COVID, once again on the rise, and with dissatisfaction about the US and community handling of COVID. Also on the rise, we decided to give a microphone to the American people to hear what’s on their minds, from public health to public safety, from mask mandates to vaccines. The country is split about what to do and whom to trust. For that reason, we invited Dr. Tom Frieden, who led the CDC for eight years and was the Commissioner of Health for the city of New York for seven to weigh in and respond to questions from our citizen panel. We began by asking a simple question. Do you trust public health? The skepticism was immediate and passionate. When I give you the phrase public health in a sentence, what comes to mind? First, you hear public health? What comes to my first Scott from Virginia? What would you say?

 

I guess I think about the pandemic again, and what we all went through

 

Dakota from Indiana,

 

backed by science, but just trusted by the public.

 

Okay, I’m gonna mispronounce your name. But so men from New York to Lamont Yes. A concern for the community at large.

 

Stacey from Pennsylvania,

 

I think about the people

 

at large and the government and how it actually

 

tries to control diseases.

 

Well, I am and I say public health, what comes to mind first,

 

not transparent or trustworthy? Does the phrase public health give you a positive or a negative reaction? Overall? Raise your hands if you would say positive

 

1234 of you, five of you, who says negative?

 

Okay, I want to know the negative for you. When I say public health, you have a negative reaction. Why?

 

Because I see it as usually run by government bureaucrats. And it’s usually has a political

 

a political, I guess,

 

view from my perspective.

 

I think of systems that are underfunded and aren’t well researched at the local and state level often and then at the federal level, I think there’s too many different agencies and I don’t really know who’s in charge and whose information is best on the best science and who to actually listen to the coda your answer.

 

Yeah, so I think a lot of it comes came from going out of the pandemic, where a lot of the decision making seem to be less driven by a factual basis and more driven by kind of politics and popularity, a lot of that was kind of seen with how COVID enforcement was kind of based off of your social status, or political party, or political ideology at times. And I think continuing post pandemic, the issue of just a lack of transparency, and then a push for mandates rather than education and volunteerism, and public health. John of Rhode Island. I think that pre pandemic Frank, I would have said public health meant something different to me post pandemic, it means a new has a new definition. It has a definition that is both politically and ideologically driven, agenda driven. And it also says to me, that I can’t trust what’s being told to me because quite frankly, I don’t believe it. And it’s been an I’ve been proven to be right. So I have a far different definition of it now than I did pre 2020. Okay, so John from Ohio. I think you raise your hand that you’re more than I think it you’re more negative now, and that has been politicized. Am I correct? That is crazy. Tell me why. Basically, before the pandemic, I really had no opinion of the public health but what’s the put out pandemic the more you went in with the mask, everything being rammed down your throat with not really much science to back it up. I became very leery of it and very suspect now, Monica.

 

Similar to others, I had a more positive view of public health but I see politicians on both sides performing for social media more so than actually giving real

 

direction and information to people. And none of it worked because people lost their businesses and homes and jobs and people died. So neither side was right. So where is the actual public health in this conversation? We know trust for just about every American institution is at or near an all time low. And public health is no different. So the question is, whom do you trust? Our system panel had trouble identifying anyone or anything. Let’s listen in. Okay, this is a really powerful beginning. So who do you trust? I’m going to walk through a bunch of you, I’ll just call on you. Who do you trust to give you information about things that affect your commute yourself, your family, your neighborhood, your community, your state, your country? You don’t think give me a name? Give me a position.

 

Scott from Virginia, who do you trust the most?

 

Ah,

 

I mean, I still trust you know, the CDC, I guess.

 

You know, I still trust the information they put out.

 

William, who do you from Oregon, who do you trust the most? I wouldn’t trust any government official at this point. I trust the actual journal articles and the peer reviewed studies.

 

No government official at all.

 

Not that I can think of, I’ve been even even. Yeah, no, I can’t think of one. To be honest. Danielle, from Pennsylvania, who do you trust the most when it comes to issues of public health?

 

I think that I look at an amalgamation. And so I look at not just what my federal government is saying, but what other federal governments are saying about the disease. And I get that information through a variety of newspapers. So it’s sort of bringing all different countries together and looking at him. Okay, who do you distrust the most?

 

Danielle’s? I mean, you?

 

I just trust pretty much anyone blabbing on social media.

 

Okay, leave from California. What do you trust the most, when it comes to issues of public health? Um, yeah, I mean, paralleling off of what Danielle said, it’s just, you got to just like do your own research, you know, view all the sides, like literally just spend a day on like Google and watching everything you can and make the best decision you can for yourself. I got need an individual, not a name, but a position who is going to if there’s a conflict where you’re going to believe?

 

Well, ultimately

 

the CDC over the media, if that’s what it comes down to is, or a government, individual, I would trust the CDC, as the policymaker, in this case. Yeah.

 

Monica, and I’m not asking you about politicians, I’m asking you about people, like the state public health director, for example, or the CDC, or the US or National Institute of Health. Why don’t you trust the government when it comes to public health.

 

Because the messaging was never clear, and it still isn’t clear. We were told close all our businesses go inside mask up, and we still get sick. And now it’s everything open, go back to normal. But we can get good information about the latest virulent, or the latest, I forget the word for it. But the latest COVID is out there and RSV. And I teach on a university campus where I’m gonna catch everything under the sun because I teach undergraduates. And if I listened to the federal government, I’m supposed to believe that everything is just fine. But when I see the infection numbers amongst the people that I deal with, and people that I know, I know, it’s not fine. And so I don’t trust. They don’t come with citations and evidence and there’s no discussion about what’s in the middle. It’s either everything shut down and we’re going inside or Everything’s just fine. Go along as though life is like it was in 2019. And there’s some truth in between that. Okay, I love this question when asked you because it’s I’ve never done this before, the state commissioner of public health issues of public statement, or holds a press conference, the moment that he or she begins, what are you thinking? What comes to mind first, you hear about the press conference, you turn it on? You see them reacting to it.

 

Either you’re reading about it or you’re watching it what comes to mind first, John from Rhode Island here we go again, that’s my thing. Here we go again, okay. I look I look at you know, all the everyone everything that everyone’s been saying, Frank, and I think about Rahm Emanuel, and he said, Never let a crisis go to waste. And now

 

That’s how I feel about politicians and the structure. Right now, nobody is letting this crisis go to waste in one way or another. So I think, here we go again. Amanda starts off, you turn it on, it comes on your TV, or comes on in your computer, what are you thinking? I need a big glass of wine because I’m going to have three kids at home. I’m not going to school. That’s what I think.

 

So you’re thinking the worst. I’m thinking if there’s a press conference, there’s going to be a mandate for something that I need to listen to, and probably will have to be asked to comply with. I work in education. So of course that is makes me extremely fearful.

 

Okay, Tim, what are you thinking the first moment you see the press conference? What’s the reaction in your head?

 

Some type of political agendas being pushed? Very

 

not inclined to trust what they’re going to say. So just Yeah, general lack of trust.

 

I got to ask

 

you so, so cynical, Stacy. William, why are you so cynical?

 

Because we’ve been lied to continuously. It’s always more to the story than what’s just presented. And unfortunately, you have to dig the find out because they won’t be forthcoming.

 

Why so cynical William. Oh, really? The sad thing for me is we still don’t have a post mortem on COVID. Right. I mean, we don’t know did masks work? Did they not work? Did the lockdowns work? Did they not work? What other treatments were available? Did they work? We still don’t know what went right and what went wrong for COVID-19. So before we figure that out, how in the world are we going to figure out what we should do for the next thing that comes along? Dawn from our island? Why so cynical? I’m cynical because everything they said was wrong. 15 days to flatten the curve masks work, the vaccine work. We stole so much time from kids, we took kids proms, they didn’t have any We shut schools down. We just hampered a whole generation of kids for absolutely no reason for a virus that had a 99.7% survival rate. It was one of the greatest blunders that we’ve ever done. I think part of the problem was is it dependent on which state director you were listening to? Yeah, some state directors would actually get up there give you the reasoning behind what they were doing. I think a lot of those were probably state directors that were approved through a commission or a medical board or an appropriate board. Well, then you have the politicized state directors on both sides of the aisle that were just up there to give coverage to whichever party was next to their name. Thank God, honestly, I don’t know if I’ll ever have 100% confidence and trust, I just won’t be able to apply that. It’s because I you know, Emily made a good point fine. You can have non appointed government officials, medical providers, treating providers next to you on that stage, providing demonstrative aids or proofs to their statements. But what if they are just puppets of that of that government? You’ll see on your screen, Tom three. Tom was the head. I’m gonna introduce you, Tom, in my mind, how many of you by show of hands know who he is?

 

1234 of you.

 

Okay, Tom is an expert. Tom ran the CDC, Tom ran health for New York City, for our New York, for Solon. You actually have the guy who ran it for your city.

 

I’m gonna give him half an hour with you. You can ask whatever questions you have from him. But just know that my purpose for the next half hour is to figure out what needs to happen. So you aren’t as skeptical that you aren’t as cynical? Well, thanks. I’ve been listening in for the last half hour, it’s very, very important to hear people’s perspectives, what you have to say, what you’ve been hearing what your frustrations are, and I can understand them.

 

And I don’t have any of the perfect answers. I can give you the information. I think one of the things that public health needs to always do is say, before we say anything else, based on what we know. Now, here’s what we believe. The facts are, here’s how we know what we’re saying. Here’s what we don’t know and what we’re doing to try to find it out.

 

And we understand that some people disagree. We understand even within the medical or public health field, there may be disagreements, and ultimately there are individual discharge judgments.

 

where you decide, you decide what you’re going to do, but our role is to empower you with the best available information, so that you can decide what you want to do to protect yourself and your family and your community. Got from Missouri, did that have done making more trust and more trust in last year? I’ve no impact.

 

I’m kind of middle of the road. So you asked a question earlier, I didn’t really get a chance to answer. If I were to ask the public health person, right, if I’m trying to trust them or not. My question would be, what are you and your family doing? Not what you’re telling me to do? What is it that you are doing in this situation? That’s what I want to know. I’m curious, William from Oregon, you’re one of the skeptics

 

was what Tom said at all impactful for you. It was it what he said to me, I caught two things. One is the voluntary nature of it, which he said we would give you the tools to make your decision which yet good job. And he also admitted that he wasn’t always right. He didn’t say that I am a science. And I know everything. And, you know, he said, we’ll tell you when we get things right. And we’ll tell you when we get things wrong. I think going back to the pandemic, if the officials actually did that, I think we’d all trust them so much more. If they made a mistake about masks or made a mistake about something just say yeah, are bad, not going to do it again. But I still haven’t heard any of that stop appearing with politicians don’t appear with elected officials don’t effect don’t appear with Paul with party people. Have your own press conference with your own people and say, Look, this is as non political as pancreatic cancer. However, you guys are going to deal with this deal with this one, this is the reality and don’t be with politicians. Because the minute you do that, on either side of the aisle, people are going to look at you in a negative or a suspicious light stop appearing with politics. And I just I just interject, Frank that that’s what happened pre COVID When When Ebola hit 2014 2016, we gave daily press conferences from Atlanta, just CDC.

 

And you would trust it, then

 

you still don’t know what goes on behind closed doors.

 

But in no, no situations perfect, no solutions perfect. You’re gonna be skeptical. The issue is they want to keep you alive. John, I don’t know how old you are. But the cvgs job is to provide information that keeps you alive.

 

And you’re gonna have to decide whether or not you trust it, whether it’s credible to you what we’re trying to figure out in this whole conversation. What makes it more likely that at least you listen to what they have to say, to coda. I’m watching your reaction to this. And you’re nodding your head often, in a favorable way to what Tom has been saying, explain why it goes back to you need to be an independent entity, you got to be viewed essentially like how NASA is viewed to the public that they are a quasi governmental entity to in most people’s eyes that’s funded by the government but not the government. Throughout the conversation, I struggled to find anyone or anything that assists and panel was confident about the people, the institutions, what they read and saw everything created more doubts and despair than credibility and confidence. So the question is, who decides? When there is disagreement? Is it the elected officials or the health officials? Who should have the final decision? Is it a national decision, a state decision or a local decision? Tough questions. Let’s hear how America answers. Who should be ultimately responsible for decisions like vaccines, masking, closing down of businesses or schools? Do you want

 

nonpartisan health and science

 

experts? Do you want elected officials? You have to choose who says science Raise your hands.

 

Okay, so why more of you want the science people than the elected people? Why do you choose science over elected again, raise your hands if you choose science.

 

Law, Latasha, why science? And then John from Ohio. Why science?

 

I mean, because they’re the professions professionals in that area. I don’t think I’m an elected official, and determine what I should do if it’s something related to illness or, you know, they’re the ones that’s driven by the politics, but a scientist or somebody in the science field has a profession. So that’s their study in the area. So I prefer their recommendations over there.

 

Official, John, why science? I basically totally agree they are the experts in the field, the politicians, you don’t know if they’re doing it for political gains or whatever. And I would trust the scientists because that’s, that’s their bailiwick. Now, I know that is telling me you want the elected officials, you want to be able to hold them accountable. Who by show of hands, who wants the elected officials and want to understand why Richard Montana, you go first Solomon from New York, and then Dakota from Indiana. Why the elected official? Well, number one, that’s accountability. So we have an accountability factor, but I want this to be at the local level. Solomon, why the politician and not the science, or health experts, though, for three reasons. One, I think it’s naive to think that there’s going to be a separation between politics and public health. That’s the reason why we have a government, we elect government officials to help us in time of famine, crisis, need war, whatever the case may be. So that is precisely their functioning right. And number two, I think you can’t solely rely on a scientist or a data professional, I think you can’t do that governing officials rely on those experts, because certainly, they’re going to provide that

 

professional criteria. But there’s a lot of other things you have to look at economy.

 

A lot of other things education, right? Just so that’s why you can’t you can’t rely on just the scientists alone. I remember I lived in New York during the pandemic and 2020 and had like neighbors next door who were working in hospitals, and I had gotten out and got my masks and sent them to them because I wanted them to have them. And so I think like if you can trust the American public to kind of do the right thing with the right information and with like a very strong dose of humility, because I don’t think anyone has really come. I don’t think we’ve had that like humility moment of saying, Hey, we don’t know what this was at that time. Or even now, like, we don’t know how this variant is going to react now. Like, here’s our best shot based off of the years of experience in science, that would help them I just want to say, Frank, that what Danielle just said is, is like totally aligned with what CDC drilled into its staff. For decades. You when you’re communicating in a health emergency, be first, be right. be credible, be empathetic, give people practical, proven things to do, and treat people as adults, share the dilemma. Tell them what the issues are, people can deal with the truth. So give that information to people. And when you do that, you’re much more likely to get alignment and how to move forward. The COVID vaccine is still controversial today. What does that mean for the next pandemic? What does that mean for the other vaccines that our children get to immunize them against diseases that once killed hundreds of 1000s? Let’s find out when vaccines first came out. Initially, it looked like they were so good, that if you got vaccinated, not only were you less likely to die, but you were less likely to infect other people, it turned out that after two or three months, that super protection faded. And when that became clear, the case for vaccine mandates went out the window out the window. Now, that’s not the case for some other vaccines, where you’re the only way to protect that kid with leukemia down the street is for you to get vaccinated against measles. Right? So there’s some nuance here. Now masks are another issue we can get to but let’s stick with the vaccines for a minute. How? I mean, we’re not going to man, no one’s going to be mandated to get vaccinated. But how are we going to make sure that over 60s Get vaccinated? Because if they don’t, they’re going to be 10s of 1000s of deaths that are preventable. This mandate issue is important. If it is absolutely scientifically proven that it saves lives.

 

Does the government have the responsibility to mandate vaccines that say with people over age 60? Scott, you go first? I mean, I think so. I mean, I never had a problem with wearing a mask. I mean, to me, it’s a slight inconvenience. And then if it can protect somebody else, I’m gonna go ahead and do it. So I absolutely think that the government has the right to mandate it. We just the government have the right to mandate it. You’re talking about vaccines or mass vaccines? Yeah, no. I liked the

 

way Tom said it, though he’s like, you know, if you are in this select population, we highly, highly recommend it. I just thought that that was part of the frustration for me. I hate when someone says you have to do something.

 

Yeah, threaten your reaction to how Tom dealt with a vaccine mandate?

 

Yeah, I mean, I agree. I think most people will get their Vaccine Information from their personal doctor. And I feel like a lot of people, especially at a certain age are going to the doctor more. So should it be mandated? No, because not everyone can get it. But highly suggested, definitely.

 

Does anyone think

 

that? If it’s okay, a polio vaccine for your kids? Should that be mandated? Yes or no? Raise your hands if it should be? Yes.

 

Who’s against that for a polio vaccine for your children?

 

Only one person. And I’m two people,

 

Latasha and Brittany, why are you against polio mandating polio vaccines?

 

Because I don’t think it’s as prevalent as it probably once was. Back, you know, when it was really, you know, an issue. So the chances of my child getting polio in this day and age is probably not as high as it probably was when it was really a mandate. So I don’t think it should be mandated as of today. Does anyone else think that on polio, for example, or whooping cough for the stuff that we’ve been doing now for the last 30 years, that they should be that they should not be mandated?

 

Okay, Emily, explain why it should not be mandated. I think that I do think that potentially it should, but I think the distinction needs to be made is that those are true vaccines in a sense that they inoculate you. And I think that what most people have come to realize about this current Emmet, mRNA. Generation is it’s not really a vaccine in the classic sense. It’s more of kind of a prophylactic. I’m thinking of polio, and those, so then I would mandate that, Tom, how would you respond to Brittany? And law? Have you pronounce it a Tasha

 

Latasha, okay, so the things that

 

we, what we do affects other people, you know, there’s a saying, your right to swing, your fist ends up my nose, your right to go out and have a few drinks, and then get behind the wheel. You don’t have that, right, because you might kill my kid on his way to school.

 

And in the same way, for some vaccines, if everyone says, you know, I don’t want to do it, it’s going to come back, we’re already seeing that in some communities, we’ve seen it with measles, we’ve seen it with other diseases. So I think at some level, we have to recognize that

 

our health is bound up in the health of other people. And it’s important that we do certain things, even if our risk is little. Because otherwise, we’re going to have a big risk to a lot of people. But Tasha, your reaction?

 

I mean, to a certain extent, I agree. But still, again, if it’s not prevalent to this day and age,

 

I mean, of course, I’m gonna, you know, go with the requirement of whatever it is, but I just don’t think that it should be a mandate because again, in this day and age, it’s not relevant to, to me or to our society. So that’s just how I feel I saved the best for last, mask mandates. Do they work? Are they ever appropriate? When do an individual’s right supersede the public’s right? Or system panel has a lot to say about the issue? Add a million deaths. Is it acceptable for the government to say we don’t want a million more to die?

 

There should be a mandate who believes that that is acceptable? Raise your hands.

 

Okay, so come on. Tell me why. Amanda, tell me why. Because I know where you stand on this. Why is the million people enough?

 

Look for a mask mandate on that issue alone. It’s fine to issue a mandate for a mask

 

because it can be viewed as something as trivial inconvenience, etc, etc. When you get to vaccines. a mandate for that I Tom, I know you made an important point that yes, the fist can only go so far as to your nose you can only get into a car and not strike someone else. Yes to participate in society. We do have to live within certain confines in order to benefit the greater good right to make sure that the world

 

moves.

 

Masks are okay. One death is even a dwarf. Julia, would you accept a mask mandate knowing that a million people died because of COVID? And that we could lose that again? No, not necessarily, because it’s not that black room, black and white.

 

It’s not a one size fits all approach. You know, I had a 10 year old son at the time that was in school that had to wear a mask every day, he had people in his class that were drawing pictures with no fate, you know, essentially no smile, no nose on it. We lost probably two years of education for our children. And I guess my other question would be, and I’m not saying this to be judge and jury, it’s just trying to find out. The people that 20 million that did die, you know, were they did they have preexisting conditions? Like, I think that maybe there should be mandates, but I don’t think there should be mandates for every individual.

 

But that’s what the mandate is. Well, then I don’t believe there should be any mandate. So a million people dying is not enough.

 

It’s not I mean, what is enough 100,000 people dying? So let me let me, let me let me let me I didn’t mean to interrupt your journey. But I think you’ve raised a really important point, which is, couldn’t we just an end? You’re right, most of the people who died from COVID were older, or had underlying health conditions. But underlying health conditions, it’s about 40% of American adults, it’s not a small proportion. And the challenge here is, to me what I just gave you the personal story about a member of our family who’s immunosuppressed, that individuals wearing a high quality mask and 95 to protect themselves. But if we had a massive outbreak, we’re going to have lots of people. And that the challenge is, you know, there was this concept that you could protect the vulnerable. The challenge is, you know, grandparents come visit kids, people have to go to work. And so this is one of the real challenges, like, in theory, yeah, you could have everyone vulnerable, wear an n95 Mask. But in practice, you have people living in multigenerational homes, you have people on chemotherapy, whose kids go to school. So now you’re gonna say, Oh, if your kid goes to school, you know, you can’t live with him or something. I mean, it becomes really, really complex.

 

Yeah, I agree. It definitely is complex. But again, I still it, you can’t have a one size fits all approach for everybody. That’s just my personal view. I think a lot comes down to

 

who people hear speaking and whether they can trust that person and understand them and that person has a clear communicator. It’s the message and the messenger. And that may be a local health officer. Some of the state health officers did fantastic jobs, but some who did fantastic Jobs got chased out of their jobs, too. So this is, you know, I guess I’ll leave you with one thought.

 

Whether or not public health regains because it’s longer, let’s be frank, whether it regains the trust of Americans may determine whether you and your kids are safe. This is one of the toughest conversations on one of the toughest issues right now. And your opinions do not always fall on partisan lines. Some Democrats were highly critical to the government’s handling of COVID. And some Republicans accepted the decisions of the public health experts, even though they personally disagree with their strategy. And everyone is wondering, When is the next Coronavirus and will it be even worse, but we have to leave it there on behalf of America speaks on straight arrow news. I’m Dr. Frank Luntz. See you next time.

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