The latest news from public-health officials yesterday was not at all encouraging: there are now 704 confirmed measles cases across 22 states. As NBC News reported yesterday, it's the highest number of reported cases in the U.S. in a year since 1994, which is six years before officials declared the disease eliminated.
It was against this backdrop that a reporter asked Donald Trump late last week about his message to parents. "They have to get the shot," the president said. "The vaccinations are so important. This is really going around now. They have to get their shot."
HHS Secretary Alex Azar was apparently impressed with what he heard. Politico reported yesterday:
Azar said Trump's statements during the 2016 campaign linking vaccination to autism were based on a "debate about this issue but it's been settled. The scientific community generated definitive information so we can reassure every parent there is no link.""The president is very clear that children should get their shots, that parents should make sure they are up to date," Azar told reporters on a call. "Most of us have never seen these devastating diseases and that's how we want to keep it. They belong in the history books and not in our emergency rooms."
Much of this is obviously easy to endorse, though I can't help but notice that Azar is setting the bar awfully low. The "debate" over vaccines was not ongoing in 2016 when then-candidate Trump peddled dangerously foolish theories to the public, but the Republican did it anyway.
His pre-candidacy rhetoric on vaccines was wildly irresponsible, but it didn't stop after he launched his presidential bid. Indeed, Trump declared during a primary debate that autism "has become an epidemic" and has "gotten totally out of control." He even had an anecdote to share: "Just the other day, two years old, two and a half years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic."
There's no evidence that child ever existed in reality, but Trump nevertheless passed the story along to millions of viewers.
As a rule, politicians face criticisms for flip-flopping, and that shouldn't be the case here. Trump said the wrong thing about vaccines before his election, and he's saying the right things now.
While his new posture is welcome, does it fully excuse his earlier recklessness? In fact, there's a lingering question for which there is no good answer: how many families didn't get vaccines because they listened to Trump's previous rhetoric on the issue and took it seriously?