DHS wound down pandemic models before coronavirus struck

“The Department of Homeland Security stopped updating its annual models of the havoc that pandemics would wreak on America’s critical infrastructure in 2017, according to current and former DHS officials with direct knowledge of the matter.
From at least 2005 to 2017, an office inside DHS, in tandem with analysts and supercomputers at several national laboratories, produced detailed analyses of what would happen to everything from transportation systems to hospitals if a pandemic hit the United States.”

” the work abruptly stopped in 2017 amid a bureaucratic dispute over its value, two of the former officials said, leaving the department flat-footed as it seeks to stay ahead of the impacts the COVID-19 outbreak is having on vast swathes of the U.S. economy. Officials at other agencies have requested some of the reports from the pandemic modeling unit at DHS in recent days, only to find the information they needed scattered or hard to find quickly.”

““A lot of what we’re doing now is shooting in the dark, and there’s going to be secondary impacts to infrastructure that are going to be felt in part because we didn’t maintain these models,” said one of the former DHS officials. “Our ability to potentially foresee where the impacts are or may manifest is a result of the fact that we don’t have the capabilities anymore.””

” Much of the blame for the switch in focus at DHS, according to two of the former officials, falls on longtime DHS employee Robert Hanson, who became division director of prioritization and modeling at the department’s Office of Cyber and Infrastructure Analysis (OCIA) in May 2016.”

“Hanson wanted to focus more on visualizations of events like hurricanes and “going down rabbit holes that really didn’t need to be done,” according to one of the former officials. He also wanted to focus more on elections and cybersecurity because “cyber is the magic word to attract money,” said the other former official.

“They’ve allowed a lot of capability to decay, including the pandemic models and transportation models and a whole bunch of other stuff in favor of chasing the soccer ball on different cyber things,” including trying to use machine learning and AI in work on cybersecurity, this person said.

In an interview, Hanson acknowledged decreasing some funding away from pandemic modeling to other topics of research because he had “been given direction by my leadership at the time to reprioritize a lot of the projects,” and he agreed it was necessary. He also said that when he took over the modeling program, it was considered “ineffective” by DHS leadership and by executive branch overseers.

Hanson thought, too, that pandemic modeling was best done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the former DHS officials said, although the CDC’s mandate is different and researchers there don’t focus on how a pandemic could affect non-health related infrastructure.”

“It wouldn’t be easy for DHS to rebuild its capacity to model pandemics, given the brain drain within the department: Many of the people who worked on the models have now scattered across the government or left government service altogether, one of the former officials said.”

“current officials are left essentially to reinvent the wheel in the middle of a pandemic”

” “I’ve heard people say it’s a black swan. It’s not a black swan,” said one of the former DHS officials. “This is the whitest of white swans. This was absolutely inevitable, and the fact is we didn’t even maintain the capacity that we had or even the records of what we had done so that information could be quickly located and turned over to people who are making the critical operations right now.””

We are your future’: Will all of America become like New York?

“New York is both the country’s most populous city and its most densely populated. Vinetz said both the city’s high density and the fact that it is densely populated across a large region could be exacerbating factors. Vinetz also cited the city’s status as a hub for global travel as a factor that could be contributing to the outbreak there.”

“there are too many unknowns to draw firm conclusions at this point, and residents of the rest of the country should not assume they will avoid New York City’s fate”

” interviews with New York residents and officials suggested that both the New York lifestyle – replete with shoulder-to-shoulder public transportation, frequent dining out because of the limits of apartment living, and reliance on crowded city parks for daily recreation – as well as a certain stubbornness in curbing it may have contributed to New York’s high infection rate.”

““Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo also have density and nowhere near the kinds of outbreaks we have,” Hendrix said. “Density also requires good governance coupled with reinforced strong social norms to counter the spread of contagious disease. What you’re seeing today is the fruit of a slow government response to a crisis.”

While Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have been ahead of the federal government in issuing calls for social distancing, an early spate of mixed messaging from elected officials may have led some New Yorkers — especially those who perceive themselves as young and healthy — to take unnecessary risks.”

“Less than three weeks ago – March 5 – de Blasio took a subway ride to show his confidence in the safety of the city’s transportation system and his administration told the city’s 4.3 million straphangers that they were safe riding in jam-packed subway cars as long as no one coughed or sneezed directly on them.”

“Cuomo claims that the high rate of cases is correlated to testing at “the highest per capita level in the United States.””

How to update the country on coronavirus: Thank Trump first

“At the White House podium over the last few weeks, each member of the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force has been cognizant of two messages: one for millions of Americans; another for the man just a few feet away. Even the health experts — many of them not political appointees — have made sure to deliver some praise to the president to help the medicine go down as they dish out some of the more dire predictions about the growing pandemic.
Critics have noted that aides have been premature at times to lavish compliments on the president as they continue to fight the virus. They compared the constant thank-yous to Trump’s televised Cabinet meetings, during which Trump went around the room and had each senior official praise him.

“It undermines the credibility of the experts. … What people need are the facts. They don’t need experts spending time fluffing up the commander in chief,” David Lapan, a former Pentagon spokesperson and vice president of communications at Bipartisan Policy Center said.”

“For those who know the president, public praise and flattery are a valuable political currency. Trump has been noticeably more gracious towards several Democratic governors during the coronavirus outbreak, often citing their praise of his current leadership.

The president on Sunday noted that state governors were “very, very complimentary” on a recent nationwide coronavirus call.

“I watched, over the last few days, Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo, I watched Gavin Newsom,” Trump said, referencing the Democratic governors in New York and California, two of the hardest-hit states. “I watched both of them. And they’ve been, you know, very complimentary.””

“The president is hyper aware of TV ratings, which are compiled weekly for him in the White House, and viewership of the briefings during the daytime hours have seen a notable spike as Americans anxiously watch from home.

Administration officials say it’s an opportunity for experts from the task force to answer questions, but it also gives the president a national platform to assure the public and offer himself a pat on the back.”

Fox News’s coronavirus coverage slid back off the rails spectacularly on Monday night

“All three of the shows making up the network’s top-rated primetime lineup — Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham — featured segments about the coronavirus that ran with misinformation President Trump has embraced, from advocating that people start thinking about heading back to work even if it could leave more people dead to promoting unproven and potentially dangerous drugs as coronavirus cures.

Trump and his high-profile backers are struggling to come to grips with the reality that there are no shortcuts back to normalcy. And now shows watched by millions could put a lot of people’s health and lives in danger.”

Intelligence reports warned about a pandemic in January. Trump reportedly ignored them.

“Top health officials first learned of the virus’s spread in China on January 3, US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Friday. Throughout January and February, intelligence officials’ warnings became more and more urgent, according to the Post — and by early February, much of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the CIA’s intelligence reports were dedicated to warnings about Covid-19.

All the while, Trump downplayed the virus publicly, telling the public the coronavirus “is very well under control in our country,” and suggesting warm weather would neutralize the threat the virus poses.

Privately, Trump reportedly rebutted health and intelligence officials’ attempts to get him to take action to prepare communities in the US while rebuking officials who were delivering sober risk assessments.”

“Trump is finally taking the virus more seriously, but it’s still unclear how widespread the effects of delays in action will be.”

“We are desperate”: Trump’s inaction has created a crisis with protective medical gear

“Doctors, nurses, and hospital administrators have been warning that they might run out of PPE for weeks now, but the warnings have become more urgent in recent days. For many hospitals, running out of masks is no longer something that “might happen.” The shortage is here.
Among the resources running dangerously low are N95 respirators, the masks that cup the face closely and have been approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to block the inhalation of 95 percent of small airborne particles.

According to NIOSH guidance for extending N95 supply, hospitals should advise their staff to, “discard N95 respirators following close contact with, or exit from, the care area of any patient co-infected with an infectious disease requiring contact precautions.” But as the shortage worsens, reusing these masks is becoming the go-to method of preservation.”

” To avoid having to reuse N95 masks, many hospitals are allocating them only to staff members who are directly entering patient rooms — which, in turn, means limiting the number of staff members who enter patient rooms in the first place.”

“”The management is telling the nurses to wear masks that are not N95, even though most of us would feel more comfortable and safer with the N95,” says another nurse, who works at Baptist Health in Miami. “We are trying to fight for what’s right but when the CDC says you can wear a bandana or scarf in the place of a mask, it’s hard,” referring to the CDC’s guidance for optimizing the supply of facemasks. It notes, “In settings where facemasks are not available, HCP might use homemade masks (e.g., bandana, scarf) for care of patients with COVID-19 as a last resort.””

” “We are desperate,” said another nurse who works at a New York hospital, who said she had spent her one day off running around collecting donations for PPE. “Please urge anybody who can donate any masks, but most importantly N95s, to do so.””

How polarization shaped Americans’ responses to coronavirus, in one chart

“As the coronavirus pandemic took hold in late February and early March, President Trump and his allies in the conservative media adopted a skeptical tone. Trump said that “one day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear;” Fox Business host Trish Regan called it “yet another attempt to impeach the president.”

Some preliminary early data suggests that Trump and Fox downplaying the pandemic made Trump supporters less likely to take the disease seriously early on.”

“on March 13, Trump declared a national emergency over coronavirus, and, afterward, started taking the virus more seriously in public rhetoric and response. And starting on March 13, the partisan tilt disappears”

“Schaffner’s research here is very preliminary. It’s worth noting that there are several possible confounding variables, including the fact that some of the hardest-hit earlier states were blue-leaning coastal ones like Washington, California, and New York.

But his findings are consistent with early polling on coronavirus showing the same partisan gap, with Democrats consistently saying they were more likely to take individual action on coronavirus than Republicans.

It also fits with what we’ve observed more broadly during the Trump administration: The president’s stance on something causes Republicans to align with it and Democrats to oppose it, as well as a large, pre-Trump body of research on public opinion suggesting that voters often take cues on complex policy issues from trusted elites.”

“as evidence continues to mount for a partisan gap in coronavirus response early on, we should take seriously the possibility that Trump returning to downplaying the risks of the virus would also lead to a vast swath of the American public ignoring public health advice — and thus contributing to the pandemic’s rapid spread.”

Trump Slowly Enlisting More Agencies in ‘Whole of Government’ Response to Virus

““We need the federal government to play its role,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York said Monday. “The federal government has tremendous capacity.”

Much of that capacity is untapped. Hospital ships are at port. The Department of Veterans Affairs, legally designated as the backup health care system in national emergencies, awaits requests for help. The veterans department has a surplus of beds in many of its 172 hospital centers and a robust number of special rooms for patients with breathing disorders.

The sprawling system of emergency doctors and nurses ready to be deployed by the Department of Health and Human Services — known as the National Disaster Medical System — is also still waiting for orders, other than to staff locations where passengers offloaded from cruise ships are being quarantined.

And the Defense Department, home to 1.3 million active-duty troops and a civilian and military infrastructure that has made planning for national emergencies almost an art form, has yet to be deployed to its fullest capabilities. Senior Pentagon officials say they are ready to assist in any way that is ordered, but they also caution that much of the military’s emergency medical care is designed for combat trauma or natural disasters, and not mass quarantine for infections.

The last time a big infectious disease epidemic emerged, President Barack Obama dispatched nearly 3,000 American troops to Liberia to build hospitals and treatment centers to help fight Ebola. The Pentagon opened a joint command operation at a hotel in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, to coordinate the international effort to combat the disease, and the American military provided engineers to help construct additional treatment facilities and sent people to train health care workers in West Africa to deal with the crisis.”

“Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said on Tuesday that the Pentagon will make available to the Department of Health and Human Services up to 5 million N95 masks, which can be used to help protect health workers and vulnerable people against the virus. The first 1 million, he said, would be available immediately.

The Pentagon is also making available 2,000 ventilators for hospitals, a number that would likely fall far short of the expected need. “When you look at how many people who may need it”

“Field hospitals and the hospital ships Comfort and Mercy are designed for trauma wounds, not viruses, and doctors would have to be assigned from elsewhere to staff them. The ships, each with a 1,000-bed capacity, have helped in natural disasters like tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes, not quarantines.

Defense Department officials said that one possibility for the Comfort would be to station in New York Harbor and absorb non-coronavirus patients in New York, which could free up hospital beds in Manhattan to attend to infectious cases.”

“Oregon sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence on March 3 asking for 400,000 N95 masks. For days, it got no response, and only by March 14 received its first shipment, of 36,800 masks. But there was a problem. Most of the equipment they got was well past the expiration date and so “wouldn’t be suitable for surgical settings,” the state said.

New York City also put in a request for more than 2 million masks and only received 76,000; all were expired, said Deanne Criswell, New York City’s emergency management commissioner. The city is also requesting additional beds for intensive care units and medical teams to staff a convention center that may be turned into a temporary medical facility.”

“FEMA officials said the Department of Health and Human Services remains in charge of the federal response, and it too is waiting for orders from the agency before it moves to ramp up assistance.”

“In previous national emergencies, FEMA would be responsible for finding out where to obtain masks, ventilators, hospital beds and tents from either the military or the private sector and ensuring the supplies are delivered to states, according to Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security under President George W. Bush who oversaw the response to Hurricane Katrina.

“They have relationships and know where to look for things,’ Mr. Chertoff said. “Without that it’s not clear to me who would be doing the coordination and facilitation function.””

Before Trump’s inauguration, a warning: ‘The worst influenza pandemic since 1918’

“The briefing was intended to hammer home a new, terrifying reality facing the Trump administration, and the incoming president’s responsibility to protect Americans amid a crisis. But unlike the coronavirus pandemic currently ravaging the globe, this 2017 crisis didn’t really happen — it was among a handful of scenarios presented to Trump’s top aides as part of a legally required transition exercise with members of the outgoing administration of Barack Obama.”

“The Trump team was told it could face specific challenges, such as shortages of ventilators, anti-viral drugs and other medical essentials, and that having a coordinated, unified national response was “paramount” — warnings that seem eerily prescient given the ongoing coronavirus crisis.”

“But roughly two-thirds of the Trump representatives in that room are no longer serving in the administration. That extraordinary turnover in the months and years that followed is likely one reason his administration has struggled to handle the very real pandemic it faces now, former Obama administration officials said.”

“Obama aides, in op-eds and essays ripping the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus, officially called COVID-19, have pointed to the Jan. 13, 2017, session as a key example of their effort to press the importance of pandemic preparedness to their successors.
In a Friday op-ed, Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, blasted Trump for comments such as “you can never really think” that a pandemic like the coronavirus “is going to happen.” She mentioned the 2017 session as one of many instances of the Obama administration’s efforts to help its successor be ready for such a challenge. She also slammed the Trump team for dismantling the National Security Council section that would play a lead role in organizing the U.S. response to a global pandemic.”

“Lisa Monaco, Obama’s homeland security adviser, explained the thinking behind the January 2017 session in a recent essay for Foreign Affairs. “Although the exercise was required, the specific scenarios we chose were not,” she wrote. “We included a pandemic scenario because I believed then, and I have warned since, that emerging infectious disease was likely to pose one of the gravest risks for the new administration.””

“The Trump campaign, like the rest of America, was shocked to win the November 2016 election. Soon afterward, Trump cast aside his team’s transition prep work that had happened already and started over; some of his aides described tossing carefully collected binders full of possible personnel picks into trash bins. It was days, sometimes weeks, before his nominees and their aides showed up to meet the people they were replacing — if they did so at all — or to engage in transition meetings. Obama aides said they left detailed memos for their successors, but that quite often it appeared those memos were never read. Many on the Obama side were genuinely surprised that so many actually showed up for the Jan. 13, 2017, exercise, and there were expectations that some would skip it. On the Obama side, several agencies were represented by their second-in-command at the meeting for reasons including a belief that Trump’s principals wouldn’t show.
The gathering was held to satisfy a requirement in a 2016 law that updated the procedures around presidential transitions to require, among other things, that the outgoing administration “prepare and host interagency emergency preparedness and response exercises.” Obama also mentioned it in a 2016 executive order laying out his transition goals.”

“some Obama aides who attended said they were left with the impression that many of the Trump aides showed up to simply check off a box more than to learn. The impression was boosted in part because the transition overall was going so poorly. Several Trump nominees had barely even spoken to their Obama counterparts.”

““The problem is that they came in very arrogant and convinced that they knew more than the outgoing administration — full swagger,” one former Obama administration official who attended said.”

“Asked whether information about the pandemic exercise reached the president-elect, a former senior Trump administration official who attended the meeting couldn’t say for sure but noted that it wasn’t “the kind of thing that really interested the president very much.”
“He was never interested in things that might happen. He’s totally focused on the stock market, the economy and always bashing his predecessor and giving him no credit,” the person said. “The possibility things were things he didn’t spend much time on or show much interest in.
“Even though we would put time on the schedule for things like that, if they happened at all, they would be very, very brief,” the former official continued. “To get the president to be focused on something like this would be quite hard.”
Anything associated with Obama or his administration was also a no-go zone for Trump aides. If you brought them up, “that would be an immediate rejection, like, ‘Why are they even here? Why the fuck did you ask them?’””