President Donald Trump speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House, Nov. 13, 2020, in Washington.

Back in mid-October, U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy was effusive about President Donald Trump’s fast-tracking of a COVID-19 vaccine that now will become available by the end of next week. “There will be the highest praise,” Cassidy said Oct. 11.

And the president is deserving of acclaim for the rapid development, approval and production of the therapeutics. Operation Warp Speed, officially announced May 15, provided about $11 billion to private pharmaceutical companies for expedited research and development of vaccines followed by a relaxing of regulations to quickly inject those doses into public arms, starting with health care workers and nursing home patients before the end of the year.

All the applause, however, would be better received if America hadn’t slid back into a third phase of escalated COVID-19 infections, stressed hospital space and increased deaths while the president focuses instead on unproven allegations of widespread voter fraud.

“No one is going to deny,” Anthony Fauci told CNN, that more lives could have been saved had the president embraced social distancing guidelines earlier on.

Still, Trump supporters defend their leader’s handling of the pandemic.

Take Cassidy, for example, during a news conference last week.

The Baton Rouge Republican opened with the “both sides” gambit, inferring that it was President Barack Obama who allowed supplies of masks and other protection gear “to dwindle over the previous eight to 10 years.”

Maybe, but in May 2018 the Trump administration disbanded the White House pandemic response team. In October 2019, the federal government recognized “there are insufficient funding sources … to use in response to a severe influenza pandemic.”

In mid-November 2019, Chinese physicians reported the first cases of COVID-19, according to The New York Times. On Dec. 31, 2019, China reported the novel coronavirus to the World Health Organization, and on Jan. 6 the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a travel notice.

The first U.S. case was reported on Jan. 15.

Trump was briefed Jan. 18 by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on the threat. On Feb. 7, Trump told Bob Woodward: “This is deadly stuff.”

Mardi Gras weekend in New Orleans was sunny and mild when it began Friday, Feb. 21. Though celebrations took place all over south Louisiana, Carnival in New Orleans attracts a million tourists from all over the nation. Many believe that it was Mardi Gras that caused the coronavirus infection spike in March.

“If somebody had canceled last year’s Mardi Gras, people would have looked at that like, what?” Cassidy said. “There’s nothing that the president would have done that would be considered reasonable at the time or would have been consistent with recommendations from CDC that could have stopped that widespread dispersion.”

On Lundi Gras, Feb. 24, Trump tweeted: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!”

Trump did advise Americans to self-isolate on March 16. The next week, Louisiana and eight other states issued temporary “stay at home” orders. And after some confusing guidance, the CDC waited until April 3 to recommend that people wear masks, though Trump said he wouldn’t wear one.

Any president could tell a Ponchatoula resident to wear a mask, but that person may choose not to and there’s very little a president can do, Cassidy explained.

“We’re a country that values individual liberty,” Cassidy said. “The idea that a president or a governor or someone else is going to force people to do anything against their will on that scale, I think, overstates the power of that leader and it understates that liberty that we give individual Americans.”

That many in Louisiana wanted out of the stringent social distancing requirements that so impacted businesses is demonstrated by the petition to recall House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, for not aggressively pushing a Republican House effort to end the Democratic governor’s health emergency order. He changed course in October, and a state district judge in November ruled the effort unconstitutional.

Arguably, such challenges were emboldened by Trump’s continual “It’s going away” statements, like the one he made June 23, the day after the number of American deaths reached 120,000.

As of Friday, about 276,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, out of 14.2 million cases.

“We can always go back,” Cassidy said. “If 'if and buts' were 'candy and nuts' we all would have Merry Christmas. I’m not excusing. I’m just saying that you have to understand within context and to view now within a current context is just not fair.”

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