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Source: Vanity Fair
We need a goddamn federal response,” Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development who ran USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance in the Obama administration, told me on Wednesday. As countries around the world that have managed COVID-19 have cautiously begun to shift back toward normalcy, the United States continues to break records of new reported cases. Among public health officials and pandemic experts that I spoke to, the blame rests squarely with the White House. “We need them to fucking do something. It really remains the biggest weakness and it is why we’re seeing this kind of a second spike when no other comparable peer country is,” Konyndyk added.
With Donald Trump unwilling to take responsibility early in the pandemic, the response was left to governors and local officials, creating incoherency and inconsistency across the country. Konyndyk likened the novel coronavirus to burning embers left out after a fire. When states moved too quickly to reopen, it was “giving the fire a ton more oxygen.” The surge in cases in states like Florida, Georgia, Texas, Arizona, and California was sadly predictable. A spike in one state leaves every other susceptible. “We’re seeing right now the effect of having a 50-state approach to this pandemic and not a United States approach to this pandemic,” said Beth Cameron, a former civil servant who ran the White House’s National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense under Obama. “We tried a patchwork approach. It failed. Now we need a unified approach.”
“I don’t think people realize that the whole country remains as vulnerable as it did on day one,” said a former official who served in the Trump administration.
After months of mixed messaging from the White House, any expectation that Trump—seemingly singularly focused on restarting the economy, once his best hope of winning reelection in November—will suddenly lead the country out of this pandemic feels misguided. After all, more than 130,000 Americans had to die from COVID-19 before the president donned a mask in public. “This is horrifying, the situation we’re in right now, and is a direct result of a White House failing to take ownership of [its] role as the lead in a national disaster, a 50-state disaster, and to provide strong, clear policies that would guide an entire nation,” Juliette Kayyem, a former Department of Homeland Security official in the Obama administration who played a critical role in the H1N1 crisis, told me. “Instead you had a president who was fighting the science, questioning the scientists, undermining what we knew would stop the virus, pushing for early openings and seeming untouched by the impact that this was having on the American public. Just seems impervious.” In recent days, Trump has appeared more focused on beans than the coronavirus crisis.
Shockingly, the administration seems to be turning away from science and public health experts instead of running toward them as the virus ravages the country. “There’s such a lack of clear thinking by people that are in positions of leadership,” the former official told me. “Either they’re totally stupid or they’re totally corrupt.” White House officials, under a cloak of anonymity, kept busy planting attacks in the press against Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, earlier this week.
One official, trade adviser Peter Navarro wrote an op-ed for USA Today, in which he said, “Fauci has been wrong about everything I have interacted with him on.” Fauci, for his part, continues down the high road. “I don’t like the conflict. I’m an apolitical person. I don’t like to be pitted against the president,” he told Norah O’Donnell in an interview for InStyle magazine. “It’s pretty tough walking a tightrope while trying to get your message out and people are trying to pit you against the president. It’s very stressful.”
Perhaps even more alarming than the undercutting of Fauci is the latest move to cut the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention out of the COVID-19 data reporting process. Now, all COVID-19 patient information collected at hospitals will be sent to a central database in Washington, according to a recently released document from the Department of Health and Human Services. By Thursday, the National Healthcare Safety Network’s data dashboards—where the data was previously reported—went dark to the public. White House talking points say the decision was made to streamline the process, but health experts fear it will result in greater politicization of COVID-19 data and a lack of transparency.
“The CDC’s expertise and job is to provide that source of expert guidance and information and data to the states. And not in, often, a prescriptive way, but you can just go and see in past epidemics and past outbreaks—whether it’s Ebola or Zika—what we did is we relied on the public health and science and epidemiological professionals,” Lisa Monaco, who served as the homeland security adviser to President Barack Obama told me, name-checking Fauci and former CDC chief Thomas Frieden as experts the previous administration relied on during the Ebola outbreak. “That’s not to say that CDC doesn’t have its challenges and certainly I think we’ve seen them in terms of the coronavirus. But my own view is we ought to be working to address whatever shortfalls and problems there are with their existing systems.”
“To cut them out and to take it out of their hands and to build, frankly, what sounds like a redundant system that would be—and it’s unclear where it’s going to be— housed in the White House, I think that just risked really politicizing what we need to have: a science-based, fact-based capability, which should be in the CDC.”
The sidelining of experts is something of a hallmark for the Trump administration. “Whether it’s Dr. Fauci, or whether it is a NOAA weather forecaster or whether it is an intelligence professional, when they walk in and brief their findings out of whatever study it may be, they articulate a level of uncertainty; they articulate a level of confidence that they have; they articulate the risks that they know of at the time. And across the board that does not seem to be well received at the highest levels of this administration,” a second former official who served in the Trump administration told me. “They want black and white. They want people to tell them what the decision is. And frankly, they want to be able to blame them when that decision does not go well, but they want to be able to take credit if it does end up going well.”
Trump’s ambivalence has left the impression that the administration’s plan essentially boils down to waiting out the virus until a vaccine is developed. But even in the event that a vaccine arrives—some are showing promise—it’s only as effective as its distribution campaign. “A responsible administration would recognize that inventing or even mass-producing the vaccine is only getting you halfway there. You’ve got to get that vaccine into people somehow. And that requires supplies, logistics, messaging, and really working across all levers of government at all levels to push this out,” the second former administration official told me, rattling off the necessities—needles, syringes, vials. “My chief concern is that at some point a vaccine is going to be available and we are going to have to undertake a mass vaccination campaign like this country has never seen. And the combined forces of anti-vaccination movements, anti-government movements, Russia, China, altogether are going to pose a misinformation and disinformation risk that will make the 2016 election look like a walk in the park.”
Konyndyk echoed the sentiment. “It’s kind of like they’re focused on driving to the 50-yard line and then just figuring it out from there.”
Experts I spoke with stressed that the status quo will merely result in an endless loop of surging cases and death in the meantime. Riding COVID-19 out until there is a vaccine is not an option. “The virus has not fundamentally changed.… How do we adapt? And that’s where kind of this national conversation is, how do we start to understand a longer-term change of our social compact with each other and how we execute everything we do day-to-day and begin to live with this for at least a medium term,” the second former official said. “We’ve got a lot of hope that a vaccine will solve this. We just still don’t know if that’s the case. So rather than pinning all of our hopes and dreams on that vaccine, we also need to be looking at responsible adaptation.”
With a president not known for rising to the occasion, sources I spoke with are pinning their hopes on lower levels of leadership instead. “At this point, the governors really need to act to develop a unified approach to filling the gaps, to understanding what all of the gaps are and to filling them,” Cameron told me. “Our decisions about critical things like reopening schools are reliant on our ability to avoid a crash in our national testing program, to be able to test trace and isolate and reduce case counts, to understand when stay-at-home orders need to be put back into place and how to come out of those together in a national way, and to have some understanding of the metrics that we should be using as a country to measure our success.”
“You’re going to have all these different tools to help us manage around the virus, but it will be here and we just have to recognize that,” Kayyem said.
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