The Trump administration’s botched coronavirus response, explained

“It began in April 2018 — more than a year and a half before the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the disease it causes, Covid-19, sickened enough people in China that authorities realized they were dealing with a new disease.

The Trump administration, with John Bolton newly at the helm of the White House National Security Council, began dismantling the team in charge of pandemic response, firing its leadership and disbanding the team in spring 2018.
The cuts, coupled with the administration’s repeated calls to cut the budget for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other public health agencies, made it clear that the Trump administration wasn’t prioritizing the federal government’s ability to respond to disease outbreaks.
That lack of attention to preparedness, experts say, helps explain why the Trump administration has botched its response to the coronavirus pandemic.”

“Several weeks after the first community transmission within the US, the country has tested more than 16,000 people as of March 13, according to the Covid Tracking Project. By comparison, South Korea had tested more than 66,000 people within a week of its first case of community transmission.”

“Testing is crucial to slowing epidemics. First, it lets public health officials identify sick people and subsequently isolate them. Second, they can trace that sick person’s recent contacts to make sure those people aren’t sick and to get them into quarantine as well. It’s one of the best tools we have for an outbreak like this.”

“it’s the kind of thing that the Trump administration has screwed up, while instead trying to downplay the threat of Covid-19. Trump himself has tweeted comparisons of Covid-19 to the common flu — which Jha describes as “really unhelpful,” because the novel coronavirus appears to be much worse. Trump also called concerns about the virus a “hoax.” He said on national television that, based on nothing more than a self-admitted “hunch,” the death rate of the disease is much lower than public health officials projected.
And Trump has rejected any accountability for the botched testing process: “I don’t take responsibility at all,” he said on Friday.”

“In April 2018, Bolton fired Tom Bossert, then the homeland security adviser, who, the Washington Post reported, “had called for a comprehensive biodefense strategy against pandemics and biological attacks.” Then, that May, Bolton let go the head of pandemic response, Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, and his global health security team. The team, the Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, was never replaced.”

“Since the federal government is sprawling and large, it helps to have centralized leadership in case of a crisis. That leadership could ensure all federal agencies are doing the most they can and working toward a single set of goals.”

“it’s important to have this kind of agency set up before an outbreak. Setting up an agency takes time; it requires hiring staff, handing out tasks and expected workloads, creating internal policies, and so on. A preexisting agency is also going to have plans worked out before an outbreak, with likely contingencies in place for what to do. That’s why it was so important to have this agency in place even during years, like 2018, when disease pandemics didn’t seem like a nearby threat to everyone.”

“By repeatedly undercutting outbreak preparedness, Jha said, the Trump administration signaled “to the government and all the agencies this is not a priority. And that means that even other agencies end up not putting as much attention and energy on it. So I think this has been a longstanding problem of the White House.”

Trump, for his part, has defended his record, arguing, “I’m a businessperson. I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them. When we need them, we can get them back very quickly.”

But experts argue that’s not how pandemic preparedness should work. “You build a fire department ahead of time,” Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told the Washington Post. “You don’t wait for a fire.””

“Not all of this is necessarily the Trump administration’s fault. When the CDC rolled out its tests, a component in them turned out to be faulty. That was unfortunate, but it put a big spotlight on the CDC’s decision to use its own test kit instead of test kits other countries have used, reportedly in an effort to create a more accurate test.”

“But this is exactly the kind of situation that proper preparedness, well, prepares federal agencies for. If the Trump administration had prioritized outbreak prevention before the coronavirus pandemic, it might have used the time prior to Covid-19’s appearance — or even January and February, when the global threat was increasingly clear — to establish contingencies in case something went wrong.”

“This is, after all, something the federal government has done before for outbreaks, from H1N1 to Zika. A big difference from then to now is that Trump is in charge.”

“Trump has consistently downplayed the coronavirus, comparing it to the common flu and claiming that his administration is doing a “GREAT job” and keeping things under control. Even on Friday, when announcing his administration’s goal to get 5 million test kits out, Trump said, “I doubt we’ll need anywhere near that.”

Some of that may be political. Politico reporter Dan Diamond told NPR host Terry Gross that, based on his own reporting, Trump “did not push to do aggressive additional testing in recent weeks, and that’s partly because more testing might have led to more cases being discovered of coronavirus outbreak, and the president had made clear — the lower the numbers on coronavirus, the better for the president, the better for his potential re-election this fall.”
Some of it could also be a result of too much optimism. Trump in February said of the coronavirus, “One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” (As of March 13, the US has nearly 2,000 confirmed cases, up from fewer than 100 at the beginning of the month, according to Johns Hopkins University.)

The administration more broadly seems to have underestimated the threat, requesting $2.5 billion in emergency funding for the crisis — a fraction of what both Democrats and Republicans said is necessary and ultimately passed.”

“What Trump has done is focus on travel restrictions, first against China and most recently against most of Europe. While this likely bought the US a little time with China, the Trump administration didn’t use that time properly.
And in the case of Europe, the restrictions will likely do little to nothing. There’s one simple reason for that, Kates told me: “The virus is already here.” Since the coronavirus is already spreading within communities, the concern is no longer the virus coming in from outside the US.

Even conservatives have been critical of Trump’s response. The National Review editorial board wrote:

“[Trump] resisted making the response to the epidemic a priority for as long as he could — refusing briefings, downplaying the problem, and wasting precious time. He has failed to properly empower his subordinates and refused to trust the information they provided him — often offering up unsubstantiated claims and figures from cable television instead. He has spoken about the crisis in crude political and personal terms. He has stood in the way of public understanding of the plausible course of the epidemic, trafficking instead in dismissive clichés. He has denied his administration’s missteps, making it more difficult to address them.””

“On Wednesday night, Trump appeared to finally confront the reality of the crisis in a televised statement from the Oval Office”

“The speech was also riddled with errors, leading the administration and others to later issue several corrections”

“Trump on Friday declared a national emergency, which will unlock billions of dollars in disaster aid to help combat the virus. The administration previously declared a public health emergency in January, but that didn’t tap into as much money as the new declaration under the 1988 Stafford Act”