On April 18, I wrote in the Hill that that the federal government had failed during the first two months of the coronavirus pandemic to fulfill its fundamental duty of protecting the American public from catastrophic danger. Our failure to contain the virus forced us to implement an extensive lockdown that inflicted the worst economic harm on our nation since the Great Depression.
At that time, 35,488 Americans had perished from COVID-19.
A mere 10 weeks later, this death total has almost quadrupled, we are hitting national highs in daily new infections (now over 35,000), and COVID cases are now increasing in 33 states (with record hospitalizations up in seven states). And this is occurring while other countries in Asia and western Europe have brought the virus under some semblance of control and are able to slowly move towards normalcy. We can now conclusively conclude that in this second phase of the coronavirus response — the U.S. government has catastrophically failed again.
While the coronavirus is enormously complex and is interacting with the human body in variable and unpredictable ways, the prescription for what our nation needed to do in this second phase was fairly straightforward:
We needed to severely limit human interactions for a period of time to reduce the prevalence of the virus and bring cases down to a manageable number.
We then needed to convince the public to adopt infection prevention practices so we could restart economic activity without triggering another mass outbreak of cases.
And finally, we needed to massively expand testing and tracing capability so we could detect areas where community spread of the virus is taking place and identify individuals who likely had been exposed to the virus.
On each of these key measures, the Trump administration has failed miserably: grades of F, F, and F.
First, Trump exhibited the self-discipline of a gnat in convincing the country we needed to stay at home long enough to get the virus under control. CDC (belatedly) issued guidance on March 16 encouraging Americans to stay at home if they could, close most businesses, and end large scale gatherings.
A mere eight days later, Trump told the nation that he wanted “to have the country opened up” by early April and have large numbers of people attending events like Easter church services. Trump then praised protestors around the country challenging stay-at-home orders put in place by governors consistent with his own federal guidelines.
Republican governors in states like Texas, Arizona and Florida received the Trump signal loud and clear — they refused to implement full lockdowns, they moved to relax even these limited restrictions way too soon, and they underplayed the threat that the virus presented to their states. Predictably, these states are now virus hot-spots. Coronavirus test sites in Arizona are overwhelmed and cannot keep up with demand now that there are over 5,000 new infections per day. In Texas, the governor ordered that elective surgeries in the state’s largest counties all be postponed to free up hospital beds to handle the “massive outbreak” of COVID-19. Researchers believe Florida may become the next “epicenter” of the virus, with cases rising over 5% in a single day, and almost 16 percent of tests coming back positive (the target rate to contain the virus is 5 percent).
Even more irresponsibly, Trump undermined a key aspect of our national COVID prevention plan by mocking social distancing and chastising those who wear face masks as “politically correct.” It is hard to underestimate the toxic impact of Trump mixing public health with political identity. To fight the virus, we needed everyone — regardless of their political views — to engage in these difficult, but common-sense public health practices. Instead of using his presidential platform to promote these evidence-based measures, Trump made it a symbol of MAGA identity to refuse to follow the advice of public health professionals. Thanks to Trump, our political divisions are not only poisoning our politics, they are literally making us sick.
The federal government has also continued its miserable performance on testing and tracing. First, it disowned the original testing disaster where we missed the ability to get an early warning about the virus’ spread, leaving the problem for the states to solve on their own. Without national coordination, we are conducting only 500,000 tests per day, barely half of the low estimate that experts recommended we need to contain the virus. The hiring of contract tracers is equally grim, with studies concluding that 37 states do not meet their estimated need of trained personnel to identify contacts of those infected with COVID-19. With case numbers skyrocketing in many states, the need for testing and contact tracing will continue to outstrip capacity. If we do not trace contacts effectively, those who have been infected unknowingly will infect others and the virus continues to spread, and spread, and spread, with no end in sight.
So, here we are, well into the fifth month of this crisis and America has double the number of cases and deaths than any other country in the world and a case rate that is trending upward, while our rival China has brought the disease mostly under control, and our allies in Europe have bent the new case curve to a manageable level.
It is the same virus everywhere.
But some countries have competent national governments that took the pandemic seriously, put politics aside during a period of national emergency, and implemented an effective public health response.
Others, like us, do not.
It is that simple.
David H. Schanzer is a professor at the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy and Director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.