President Trump's White House and medical team have been criticized for not being transparent enough about the president's condition after he tested positive for COVID-19. But this isn't the first president to contract a deadly pandemic virus. President Woodrow Wilson's personal physician tried to downplay the severity of the president's illness during a crucial moment in American history when he became sick during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
- 2020 has been a year of fear and uncertainty amidst a global pandemic that has, so far, claimed the lives of more than 211,000 Americans and infected millions more. But in October, the deadly virus would reach its most high-profile patient. The president of the United States tested positive for coronavirus. His diagnosis comes amid a surge of cases among the president's White House staff and those close to him--
DONALD TRUMP: You are so lucky I'm president.
- --and after ignoring virus precautions and downplaying COVID-19's impact for months.
DONALD TRUMP: It affects virtually nobody. It's a-- it's an amazing thing.
- But this isn't the first time a White House and a president has been infected by a deadly global pandemic. In 1919, the White House was under the leadership of President Woodrow Wilson, with no nationwide plan as the country entered its third wave of a different pandemic-- the Spanish influenza. By spring of 1919, the deadly virus that had been raging for a year had already infected many in Wilson's White House, including several Secret Service members, his chief usher, and his eldest daughter, Margaret. Even the White House sheep developed influenza symptoms.
But it was during a fateful trip to Paris that the president himself would fall ill. The Allied forces had declared victory in World War I months earlier. And now, Wilson would participate in crucial postwar peace talks. But in the midst of negotiations in April, the president got sick.
Wilson's personal physician, Cary Grayson, initially tried to conceal the truth about the president's condition, telling the public that the president was not seriously ill and merely suffering from a severe cold. But at the same time that Grayson was downplaying the disease, he confided to a friend that the president was suddenly taken violently sick with the influenza at a time when the whole of civilization seemed to be in the balance. It's suspected that the neurological effects of the Spanish flu may have had an impact on Wilson's performance in Paris and on the many concessions he made.
Today, there have been questions about the president's condition since he tested positive for COVID-19, with the White House giving contradictory and confusing messages about Trump's health. Trump's medical team have also been criticized for not being transparent enough.
- So you're actively not telling us what those lung scans showed, just to be clear.
SEAN CONLEY: So there are HIPAA rules and regulations that restrict me in sharing certain things.
- President Trump's physician, Dr. Sean Conley, admitted that he had originally downplayed the severity of Trump's condition in order to stay upbeat.
SEAN CONLEY: I was trying to reflect the-- the upbeat attitude that the team, the president, that his course of illness has had. And in doing so, you know, it came off that we were trying to hide something, which wasn't necessarily true.
- By the end of the Spanish flu pandemic, more than 675,000 Americans would die. And though Wilson had downplayed his own illness, the effects would linger long after as his health continued to decline. While touring the US in September of 1919, Wilson collapsed. Newspapers said he had suffered from a nervous breakdown. Grayson attributed it to the attack of influenza last April in Paris, from which he had never entirely recovered.
It remains to be seen how Trump's own illness and the coronavirus pandemic will play out in history. But the Trump White House could learn from the failed secretive approach used by another pandemic president 100 years ago.