US President Donald Trump remained in hospital for a second day on Saturday after testing positive for Covid-19 amid conflicting reports on the state of his health, as Washington and the rest of the world assessed the fallout for American policy and his re-election campaign.
The news about a leader who has long downplayed the gravity of the disease comes as more than 208,000 Americans have died from its deadly spread and millions more have been infected, and in the final stretch of a tough-fought re-election campaign with his Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
In a tweet posted just before midnight on Friday, Trump said, “Going welI, I think! Thank you to all. LOVE!!!”.
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At a press conference in front of Walter Reed military hospital, White House doctor Sean Conley said the president was “doing well” and that he was “extremely happy” with Trump’s progress.
But White House pool reporters, citing a source familiar with the president’s health and speaking on background, painted a less rosy picture: “The president’s vitals over the last 24 hours were very concerning and the next 48 hours will be critical in terms of his care. We’re still not on a clear path to a full recovery.”
Going welI, I think! Thank you to all. LOVE!!!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 3, 2020
Conley and a phalanx of masked specialists in pulmonary critical care, infectious disease, nursing and anaesthesiology said the president’s cardiac, liver and kidney functions were all normal, that he had not been on oxygen at any time in the past three days, and that he was walking around. But CNN reported, citing a source, that he used supplementary oxygen on Friday.
“He’s in exceptionally good spirits,” said Sean N. Dooley, adding that Trump told them he felt like he could walk out of the hospital today. “That’s very encouraging.”
Doctors declined to say how long he was expected to say in hospital, exactly when he last tested negative or where they believe he contracted the disease. Trump is on a course of remdesivir, an experimental antiviral therapy, and if he ends up taking that for the full course, he could remain in hospital for at least five days, they added.
The president is expected to work from the hospital, according to the White House, which said the president had not handed over power to Vice-President Mike Pence.
Conley said in a statement that Trump had received an eight-gram dose of a polyclonal antibody cocktail and was also taking zinc, vitamin D, melatonin, aspirin and famotidine, a heartburn medicine.
Trump announced that he had tested positive for the disease early on Friday on Twitter, sending shock waves across the political landscape.
This followed news – revealed by Bloomberg, not the White House – that one of his closest aides, Hope Hicks, had displayed symptoms of the disease around the time they were returning on Air Force One after a debate with Biden, who has since tested negative.
The news – and growing questions about how much the White House knew and why it did not cancel meetings and otherwise limit contacts earlier on – sent dozens of people in the top echelons of US power scrambling to get tested.
While most have reported negative results, Republican Senator Ron Johnson from Wisconsin announced on Saturday that he had tested positive, the third senator to do so recently. Trump has not been particularly transparent in the past about his personal health issues.
Conley also indicated Saturday that the president was “72 hours” into his diagnosis, even though the world only learned of his condition 35 hours before the briefing. That timeline would mean that Trump had been diagnosed before he traveled to Minnesota for a Wednesday evening campaign rally and a fundraiser in New Jersey.
The physician later walked back the 72-hour timeframe, saying he meant “Day 3”, leading to more confusion.
Visitors tend not to wear masks in the presence of the president. Trump has derided the effective public-health tool as a sign of weakness and sends a message that the country is not on the fast recovery economic and health track he has tried to project.
“I don’t wear masks like him,” Trump said derisively during the debate, referring to Biden. “He could be speaking 200 feet away from them and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”
Aides said that as Friday wore on, Trump experienced symptoms that included coughing, congestion and fever, The New York Times reported.
The normally garrulous president remained largely out of public view as the week ended and failed on short notice to take a conference call with governors.
This comes amid questions on the effectiveness of a rapid Covid-19 test used extensively by the White House, Abbott’s ID Now. “The test may return false negative results,” the US Food and Drug Administration reported on May 14.
But Trump walked from his helicopter into the hospital unaided on Friday evening and flashed a thumbs-up sign to scores of reporters camped outside the building.
Being overweight, 74, male and suffering from high cholesterol puts Trump at greater risk than other parts of the population, doctors say, although he is getting far better medical care than the average patient.
In addition to the coming and going of dozens of campaign aides, others potentially exposed included top administration officials and members of Congress who have been meeting over a high-stakes confirmation for Trump’s Supreme Court choice and key legislation.
Crucial bills currently before Congress include proposals to fund government operations, provide economic relief for companies and help for millions of unemployed people hit by the pandemic.
In addition to Trump and his wife Melania’s positive results, campaign manager Bill Stepien has also contracted the disease, dealing a further blow to the campaign.
Former top White House aide Kellyanne Conway and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, both of whom helped Trump prepare for the debate, have also tested positive. With Trump behind in the polls, the campaign said it had cancelled several events and would operate digitally for the time being, although Pence is expected to step up in-person appearances.
Conley said Melania “remains well with only a mild cough and headache” and has not been hospitalised. Trump’s son Eric called his father a “true warrior” on Twitter and asked people to pray for his recovery.
Analysts have weighed the implications of Trump’s hospital stay on the campaign – including whether it would earn him sympathy among voters or be seen as further evidence of his mishandling of the pandemic – and on policy.
Michael Hirson, a China expert with Eurasia Group, said the news was an “unwelcome October surprise” for Beijing, which was already concerned it might be dragged into the US political arena.
President Xi Jinping was among dozens of leaders who have wished the president a speedy recovery. While a low-probability event, one scenario would have seen Trump cancel the phase one trade agreement with China in the hope of securing more political support.
“Trump’s positive test for the coronavirus, however, was truly unexpected and will likely make Beijing nervous,” said Hirson, a former US Treasury official in Beijing, in a note.
“But the prospect of Trump personally falling victim to what he has called the ‘China virus’ has the potential to deepen animosity towards China among the president’s base.”
Analysts said a great deal would depend on how quickly and completely the president recovered, with a protracted illness exposing Beijing to possible retaliation.
“The biggest risks would probably come after the election, should Biden win, in which case the Trump administration would have further reason to push through tough actions before it leaves office,” Hirson said.
“And of course, should the president face severe health consequences from the virus, the hostility towards China among his base would almost surely be more intense and more durable.”
Another question potentially affecting US-China relations was whether and how various campaigns aimed at curtailing Chinese tech companies often directed by Trump personally, would be affected.
Asked by reporters why it was decided given his apparently mild symptoms that Trump should be hospitalised rather than treated in the White House, Conley said: “Because he’s the president of the United States.”
More from South China Morning Post:
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This article Donald Trump’s election campaign upended by coronavirus diagnosis as his health remains unclear first appeared on South China Morning Post