Conley has also referenced “expected” findings in Trump’s chest-imaging tests, but that’s different from “normal,” the term doctors use to denote that nothing is wrong. “Expected” findings are not necessarily good. Conley repeatedly declined to elaborate. He also mentioned abnormal blood tests, but would not say more. On Monday, he alluded to abnormalities in Trump’s kidney functioning, saying that blood tests showed the president had been “dehydrated,” but that this test had returned to normal.
For dehydration to temporarily impair the kidneys is not uncommon. It’s not typically concerning. What is concerning is Conley’s unwillingness to just say that, instead resorting to dodges like “I’m not going to get into operations” and invoking HIPAA when asked about abnormal findings. Every patient has a right to privacy, and there are some issues that the president may not want to go into extreme detail about. It’s possible that Trump directed his doctor not to talk about certain findings. As the president’s physician, Conley is not an elected official: His primary duty is to Trump. He may consider himself to be a responsible citizen and doctor as long as he is leaving the American people with a basic feeling that the president is doing fine.
But a doctor who is at liberty to discuss only normal and positive findings should not be holding a press conference. The job of a physician is not to reflect an upbeat attitude. It is not to conflate optimism with obfuscation. The job of a physician is to deal in reality—to neither minimize threats nor overemphasize them.
The unique bioethical dilemma of the moment is that we are in the middle of a pandemic. Accepting reality, and a shared set of facts, is vital. And there is one crucial exception to a doctor’s obligation to protect a patient’s privacy: when that patient is a threat to others.
On Monday, when Conley told reporters that he had given Trump the go-ahead to return to the White House, he could not say whether or how Trump would isolate himself for the rest of his illness. He is presumably still contagious (unless he has already had the virus for 10 days). That is: The president, in the throes of COVID-19, was being discharged back to the very site of a major coronavirus cluster. Why send a contagious person back to the place where an outbreak is still unfolding, if he is able to quarantine and execute his duties in his presidential suite at Walter Reed?
Read: Trump’s doctor comes from a uniquely American brand of medicine
Conley even defended the president’s decision on Sunday to break quarantine and go on a car ride with Secret Service agents, which an attending physician at Walter Reed called “insanity.” At the very least, the appropriate response from Conley would have been to say “I advised against that.”
Statistically, Trump is most likely to continue recovering uneventfully. This decision to return home is not clearly medically unwise for him. But the declaration of victory and the overall downplaying of Trump’s medical status do a grave disservice to the public. And though it is within Trump’s purview, going back home is, at the very least, inconsiderate of the staff at the White House. That creates risk not just for those who work there, but everyone who has contact with those people, and then everyone who has contact with those people. As the current cluster at the White House has made abundantly clear, a single negligent act can end up leading to multiple cases.