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“It just went away”: Trump used his son’s positive Covid-19 test to downplay the pandemic

“He was fine,” the president said in Thursday’s debate.

President Donald Trump arrives to speak during the final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 22, 2020.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

President Trump has long argued that schools in America must reopen, despite the risks of Covid-19. And during the final 2020 presidential debate on Thursday, he used his own son as a talking point to underplay the deadliness of the pandemic.

“We have to open our schools,” Trump said during an exchange about shutdowns. “As an example, I have a young son,” he went on. “He also tested positive. By the time I spoke to the doctor the second time he was fine. It just went away.”

Trump was speaking of his 14-year-old child Barron, who reportedly contracted the novel coronavirus along with the president and first lady, and more than 20 people in and around the White House at the time — a cluster believed to stem from an event celebrating the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.

The president himself was hospitalized for several days with Covid-19, but now claims to be cured,” thanks to an experimental antibody treatment not available to most ordinary Americans. And on Thursday, he used the experience of his son — who also likely had access to extraordinary health care, not to mention swift testing still inaccessible to many Americans — as part of a larger argument that businesses and schools should be open because “we can’t keep this country closed.”

It’s true that children are less likely than adults to become seriously ill from Covid-19. But Trump’s argument is likely to ring hollow to parents whose kids have underlying conditions putting them at higher risk, or to the parents of the 121 children who have died of the disease, 78 percent of whom have been children of color.

The reality is that even though children have not lost their lives to Covid-19 in the same devastating numbers as adults, many parents in America live in fear of their kids catching an illness that has killed 220,000 people — and whose long-term effects are still unknown. Many essential workers go to work every day terrified they will bring home the virus to their kids. By boasting that his son is fine, mere weeks after his infection, Trump risks trivializing not just the pain of those who have lost loved ones to the pandemic, but the fear of millions of everyday Americans who are doing their best to keep their kids safe under conditions that can seem impossible.

Barron “was fine,” but children have died

The fact that children are less likely to become severely ill from Covid-19 is often talked about as one of the few blessings in this pandemic. Children seem to be less likely to contract the virus than adults, and when they do get it, their cases are more likely to be asymptomatic or mild, according to the CDC.

But that doesn’t mean children can’t get the virus, or that their cases can’t be serious. A report published by the CDC in September found 390,000 cases of the virus in people under 21 between February 12 and July 31. And just like among adults, the virus is much more likely to be fatal in children of color, who experience the combined health impacts of systemic racism alongside the dangers of Covid-19. Of the 121 children who died of the virus between February and July, 45 percent were Hispanic, 29 percent were Black, and 4 percent were non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native, NPR reported.

Meanwhile, children who contract the coronavirus can also get an inflammatory condition similar to Kawasaki disease, which can require hospitalization. At least three children have died of this complication, which is not yet fully understood.

Moreover, the long-term impact of Covid-19 — on children and adults — remains unknown.

The debate over schools reopening is a complicated one, and families have gotten encouraging news lately, including the fact that the largest school system in the country, New York City’s, has reopened on a hybrid model with few positive cases so far.

But parents around the country have been faced with wrenching decisions this year — not just whether to send their kids back to school or day care when they can’t be sure it’s safe, but how to balance the possible risk to their children of working at frontline jobs their families need to survive. Many have taken every possible precaution, wearing masks, showering the second they come home, even living away from their families to keep them safe.

The president, meanwhile, has chosen not to wear a mask and to have close contact with other unmasked people, ultimately contracting the virus and potentially transmitting it to his son.

It is good news that Barron experienced no symptoms and soon tested negative. But for the millions of American parents who spend their days worrying about their kids getting Covid-19, for those who have cared for a child sick with Covid-19, and for those who, tragically, have lost a child to the disease, Trump’s use of his son to prove that schools should reopen is unlikely to be reassuring. Instead, it’s likely to seem heartless.

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