- The US is the global epicentre of the novel coronavirus outbreak. But the country’s path to its current predicament goes back years.
- The White House disbanded the National Security Council’s pandemic response team in May 2018, and two top officials in charge of the response were either fired or abruptly left the administration.
- The Trump administration has spent the last several years weakening the federal agencies responsible for detecting and preparing for outbreaks like the novel coronavirus.
- President Donald Trump also ignored multiple warnings, beginning in 2017, of a potential pandemic and dismissed daily intelligence briefings about an impending coronavirus outbreak in the US.
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As of Tuesday morning, the United States currently leads the world in the total number of confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, with over 378,000 infections, according to an international database from Johns Hopkins University.
As the number of infections and deaths continue ticking up in the US, the Trump administration is facing sharp criticism for its actions – or lack thereof – related to responding to the US outbreak.
The Trump administration slashed agencies and government programs responsible for detecting and responding to the virus, it ignored multiple warnings of a potential surge, and it publicly downplayed the threat of the pandemic even after it had secured a foothold in the country.
2017: The Trump administration ignores multiple briefings from the Obama administration on pandemic preparedness. It also cut a DHS program aimed at responding to a pandemic
In 2017, outgoing members of the Obama administration briefed Trump’s team ahead of the inauguration about how to confront a pandemic, Politico reported.
The simulation reportedly used a situation similar to the coronavirus pandemic – a respiratory-borne virus that originated in Asia made its way to the United States.
While many incoming Trump officials took it seriously, others seemed dismissive of the training, Politico reported based on documents and conversations with attendees.
Later that year, a bureaucratic fight within the Department of Homeland Security led to the wind-down of a program that created models about how pandemics would affect critical infrastructure,Politico reported.
Politico also reported that the Trump administration declined to use a nearly 70-page pandemic playbook that the NSC’s health unit put together under the Obama administration.
2018: The White House disbands the NSC’s pandemic response team; two top officials depart the administration; and the administration starts slashing public health funding
In May 2018, the White House’s the National Security Council’s pandemic response team was disbanded in a reorganization overseen by John Bolton, then the national security advisor.
And the top official responsible for overseeing a pandemic response, Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, left the administration shortly afterwards.
One month earlier, Bolton also ousted Tom Bossert, the White House homeland security adviser who had called for a robust strategy against pandemics and bioweapons attacks.
The Trump administration also eliminated the US government’s $US30 million Complex Crises Fund, which consisted of emergency response money that the secretary of state could use to deploy disease experts and others in a crisis.
2019: US agencies start preparing for a pandemic, but their warnings are ignored
From January to August 2019, the HHS conducted a training simulation about a hypothetical pandemic, caused by a disease that bore striking parallels to the novel coronavirus, The New York Times reported.
In the simulation, federal agencies fought over who was in charge, state officials and hospitals couldn’t figure out what and how much medical equipment was available, and there was no centralised coordination on state lockdowns and school closings.
The team conducting the simulation put together a draft report laying out the roadblocks they discovered in the exercises, but their warnings went unheeded, according to The Times.
October 2019: The Trump administration declines to renew funding for a pandemic early warning system
Last fall, the Trump administration declined to renew funding for a pandemic detection program, effectively ending the initiative.
PREDICT, a program created under the US Agency for International Development (USAID), worked with 60 different foreign laboratories, including the lab in Wuhan, China that identified the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The program shut down in September when it ran out of funding – about two months before the novel coronavirus began surging through China.
PREDICT has since received an emergency infusion of $US2.26 million in emergency funding from USAID, according to the Los Angeles Times.
November-December 2019: Military intelligence unit begins compiling reports about a contagion spreading in China, and circulates the information to government officials
U.S. intelligence officials began to issue warnings about a disease now known as the novel coronavirus as soon as late November 2019, ABC News reported based on four sources who were briefed on the matter.
The intelligence was compiled by the National Centre for Medical Intelligence (NCMI), a military intelligence unit that is part of the Pentagon’s Defence Intelligence Agency. Through satelitte images and computer and wire intercepts, the report warned that the disease could pose a serious threat to the United States.
“Analysts concluded it could be a cataclysmic event,” one of the sources told ABC News.
Government officials were briefed on the intelligence throughout December, ABC reported, including the White House’s National Security Council.
The intelligence would have gone through several weeks of vetting before making its way to the president’s brifeings, officials from past administrations told ABC News.
The president began receiving briefings about the novel coronavirus threat in January.
2020: Trump starts getting daily briefings on the coronavirus outbreak in January but dismisses them
President Trump began receiving intelligence briefings about the threat of the coronavirus as early as January, the Washington Post reported.
But at the time, the president was publicly downplaying the threat of the coronavirus despite these warnings, at one point saying it would “disappear” like a “miracle.”
Other administration officials also reportedly tried to warn Trump about the potential economic fallout the from coronavirus threat. Trump’s economic advisor, Peter Navarro, reportedly circulated two memos – one in January and another in February – warning of the risk to the US, according to Axios.
Trump did not start taking the virus more seriously until mid-March, after the World Health Organisation declared it a pandemic. At that point, the president began claiming he knew it was a pandemic all along.
February 2020: Office of Management and Budget rebuffs funding request for the strategic national stockpile.
As the coronavirus began threatening the US this year, interagency squabbles led to a delay in funding for additional medical supplies in national emergency stockpile.
On February 5, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar reportedly requested $US2 billion in funding to replenish the stockpile, but he was rebuffed by the Office of Management and Budget, the Washington Post reported.
Azar and an OMB official broke out in a shouting match in the Situation Room, the Post reported, and the White House cut HHS’s $US2 billion request to just $US500 million when it went to Congress for funding a few weeks later.
The massive coronavirus relief package Congress passed in late March eventually provided $US16 billion in funding for the stockpile, the Post reported.
The government botched early testing, leading to cascading challenges in identifying COVID-19 cases
The lack of funding for public health agencies, combined with Trump’s and his allies’ refusal to take the threat seriously, crippled the US’s ability to conduct early and rigorous testing to detect and contain the virus.
In the early days of the outbreak, the coronavirus task force assured that a quick diagnostic test would be quickly rolled out, the The New York Times reported.
But flaws in the initial screening test and bureaucratic confusion led to a significant delay in the plan’s implementation.
Some of the tests the Centres for Disease Control distributed to state labs turned out to be faulty. The agency also failed to update its guidelines for testing and training for state and local health officials, ProPublica revealed. Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration’s regulations stymied the efforts of medical centres and private companies to develop their own tests.
As a result, in the early months of the crisis, the United States was radically under-testing for the novel coronavirus, wasting a precious window to understand the full scope of the rising outbreak.
Even in April, testing is severely limited; a report from the HHS inspector general found that hospitals across the country are facing a dangerous shortage in testing equipment.