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When Incompetence Becomes Deadly: The Trump Administration’s Coronavirus Response
How President Trump's response to the COVID-19 pandemic failed the American people
April 8, 2020
We all need some fun right now, so here’s a little game: match each statement to the person who said it — President Trump or Dr. Fredrick Echols, Director of the City of St. Louis Department of Health.
“I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability.”
“This tragic loss to our community is a reminder that no one is immune to getting COVID-19. […] For this reason, everyone must protect themselves, their family, friends and colleagues, by following the preventive measures and social distancing guidelines.”
“It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”
In times of crisis, we turn to our national leaders for guidance. But President Trump’s inconsistent, irresponsible, xenophobic and inaccuracy-riddled response to the coronavirus pandemic has made state-level action to slow the spread more significant. For example, Trump’s advice to governors on providing their states with ventilators: “Try getting it yourselves.” There’s also the fact that Trump has resisted Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci’s advice to issue a national stay-at-home order and has instead left it up to states to give them “flexibility.”
So let’s compare action taken by St. Louis officials to the Trump administration’s pandemic response.
The first case in St. Louis County (and the state of Missouri) was announced on March 7 by Missouri governor Mike Parson. By March 16, Mayor Lyda Krewson had reported the first case in the City of St. Louis. But as Dr. Echols explained, preparing for the outbreak had begun much earlier.
“The activities related to our COVID-19 response started far in advance of the identification of the first case,” Echols said. “Prior to the first case, we started reviewing our infrastructure […] as well as identifying what operations need to be modified or altered during the response. […] So a lot of the infrastructure and organizational changes that needed to happen were already in place.”
Meanwhile, on the national level, there were already 437 cases in the country by March 7. The first case in the U.S. had been confirmed by the CDC on Jan. 21. When asked the next day in a CNBC interview about whether there were concerns about a pandemic, Trump responded, “No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
City of St. Louis health officials had taken serious measures to curb the spread of coronavirus before the first case in the area was even reported. In contrast, the foundation of Trump’s catastrophic response was laid two years ago, when he disbanded the National Security Council pandemic office in 2018. When asked by a reporter at a March 13 briefing about his responsibility concerning the matter, the President responded with, “I just think it’s a nasty question,” and went on to claim, “I don’t know anything about it.”
Kimberly Dozier and Vera Bergengruen reported in Time Magazine that two days before, Dr. Fauci had told Congress, “We worked very well with that office. It would be nice if the office was still there.” Dozier and Bergengruen went on to explain that the CSIS Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security published a report last November that urged the U.S. government to “replace the cycle of crisis and complacency that has long plagued health security preparedness with a doctrine of continuous prevention, protection, and resilience” in order to be prepared for a health crisis such as a pandemic. Obviously that did not happen.
Not only did Trump disband a White House team that was in place to deal with global health crises like this one, he was dismissing and downplaying the virus even after the first case had arrived in the country.
One may argue that the increase in U.S. cases made it possible for St. Louis officials to be more prepared than the federal government by the time coronavirus came to the area. But the catch is that when Trump was dismissing the possibility of a pandemic in late January, health experts were saying otherwise. Opinion columnist David Leonhardt explained in a New York Times op-ed that an editorial was published the same day – January 22 – in online health news publication Stat by former CDC director Tom Frieden. Frieden warned, “The new virus is likely to continue spreading […] We need to learn — and fast — about how it spreads and how often it causes severe illness so we can try to prevent its spread.” Leonhardt went on to highlight another editorial published in late January titled “Act Now to Prevent an American Epidemic,” this one published in the Wall Street Journal by Luciana Borio and Scott Gottlieb. The two former Trump administration health officials emphasized the urgency of immediate government action to prevent devastating consequences.
Trump had the information coming from epidemiologists and public health experts at his disposal. He had the tools to use presidential power to take more aggressive action to combat the spread of the virus early, and instead he has dismissed the risks, celebrated himself, and placed blame on others. He has called the virus the Democratic party’s “new hoax” and normalized anti-Asian discrimination by labelling it the “Chinese virus.” He’s tried to predict the miraculous disappearance of the virus one day (that’s not how pandemics work), attempted to blame the Obama administration and has taken a revisionist and self-congratulatory stance on his coronavirus response, saying, “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” He has refused to wear a protective face mask after the CDC issued official guidance urging Americans to wear them. And as the New York Times pointed out in coverage of Trump’s briefing on April 3, Trump said, “Wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens — I don’t know. Somehow, I just don’t see it for myself,” despite the fact that foreign dignitary visits stopped weeks ago.
And speaking of those briefings? CNN’s Aaron Blake calculated that in one late March briefing, Trump spent about 25% of it blaming others and congratulating himself. Blake pointed out, “that is more time than he spent conveying details about the coronavirus response.”
But Trump’s dismissive, immature, and derogatory language throughout the crisis is nothing compared to his complete inadequacy as a national leader and his administration’s failure to act early on. Public health experts and epidemiologists agree that accurate, available and frequent testing is essential to curb the spread of coronavirus. But the reason the U.S. fell behind countries like Singapore and South Korea, who implemented large-scale and accessible mass testing, is a lack of action by the Trump administration, who refused to use a functioning test developed by the World Health Organization that was already being used by other countries. As Joanne Kenen explained in POLITICO, “why the United States declined to use the WHO test, even temporarily […], remains a perplexing question and the key to the Trump administration’s failure to provide enough tests to identify the coronavirus infections before they could be passed on […].”
Instead, a flawed CDC-developed test that delivered unreliable results was shipped to labs across the country. Only symptomatic people who had travelled to China or been exposed to coronavirus could be tested. And even after this test was discovered to deliver inconsistent and inconclusive results, the federal government did not switch to using a more effective test or loosen regulations to allow laboratories and medical facilities to develop their own tests. It wasn’t until Feb. 29 that an FDA policy was announced to allow hospital labs to manufacture tests. But by then it was already too late. As Harvard epidemiologist William Hanage wrote in the Washington Post, “as of late February, when the first case of covid-19 without links to known cases in the United States was detected in California, fewer than 500 tests had been conducted to detect transmission in this country.”
Dr. Fauci admitted to Congress on March 12 that the testing was “a failing.”
But the next day, Trump attempted to blame the Obama administration for his administration’s failure to make testing widespread earlier, saying, “I don’t take responsibility.”
The virus had spread to St. Louis six days earlier on March 7, and Trump had continued to make contradicting claims and downplay the seriousness of the virus that would be declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization four days later, on March 11.
In contrast, when asked what approach the City of St. Louis has taken to combat the spread of coronavirus, Echols responded with, “Education.” He emphasized the importance of providing accurate information and effective relief to disenfranchised communities in St. Louis and said, “When you have a pandemic or a large epidemic or outbreak, one of the things that it highlights is the inequity that exists within our communities.”
Echols also explained why public officials should have strong relationships with the media, because “the media controls the messages.”
“It’s important for health officials to have good working relationships with all media outlets [..] and having these initiatives in place allows us to ensure that the accurate information that we need to get the community actually gets to the community,” Echols said.
Meanwhile, Trump’s relationship to the media is something more along the lines of this tweet from March 9: “The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power […] to inflame the CoronaVirus situation.” And to correct the grammar and capitalization errors, “The fake news media and their partner, the Democratic Party, are doing everything within their semi-considerable power […] to inflame the coronavirus situation.”
But the glaring errors in the President’s grammar are irrelevant considering the fact that his habit of villainizing factual journalism has contributed to the pandemic of inaccurate misinformation spreading alongside the virus. Trump has accused CNN and MSNBC of “doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible,” as he tweeted on February 26.
An April 1 poll by the Pew Research Center highlighted disparities in factual knowledge about coronavirus between Fox News and CNN/MSNBC viewers. The poll used statistics that identified 76% of those who name Fox News as their main news source as conservative Republicans, and 57% of those who mainly get their news from MSNBC as liberal Democrats. When polled about whether a vaccine will be available in a year or more (scientists are saying a vaccine won’t be ready until at least halfway through 2021) the poll found that 78% of MSNBC viewers knew the accurate answer, compared to only 51% of Fox News viewers. When asked if the virus originated naturally (it did) instead of being developed in a lab, 66% of MSNBC viewers were aware of the fact compared to only 37% of Fox News viewers. 79% of Fox News viewers thought the risks of coronavirus were exaggerated by the media, and only 35% of MSNBC viewers felt the same. And only 17% of MSNBC viewers reported seeing conflicting facts about the covid-19 pandemic. But double that percentage – 34% – of Fox News viewers reported receiving conflicting information from news sources.
Donald Trump promotes conservative news sources that present their viewers with inconsistent and unfactual news coverage of the coronavirus crisis, while dismissing authentic journalism as fake news. That’s nothing new – welcome to the Trump presidency. But it’s more harmful now as misinformation becomes deadly.
“We struggle in public health in general with misinformation. And it can do a lot of damage,” said Washington University epidemiologist Dr. Christine Ekenga. “[…] We really need to take our directions from […] scientists and healthcare professionals. And not politicians who may have ulterior motives other than protecting public health.”
But back to St. Louis, where gatherings of over 1,000 had been banned in St. Louis city by March 12. The next day, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page announced a state of emergency in the county, and that gatherings of over 250 people would be banned. It was the same day a national emergency was declared by the Trump administration.
A state of emergency was declared in St. Louis County six days after the first case was announced. The Trump administration did not declare a national emergency until about seven weeks after the first case arrived in the U.S.
It was until around this time – mid-March – that, as the Associated Press found by reviewing federal receipts, the Trump administration waited to start buying masks and essential medical equipment in bulk to supply healthcare workers. As supplies ran low and the national stockpile dwindled, the Trump administration encouraged states to figure out where to get medical supplies themselves. Michael Biesecker explained in AP, “the Trump administration squandered nearly two months that could have been used to bolster the federal stockpile of critically needed medical supplies and equipment.” Trump also refused to use the Defense Production Act, which gives the executive branch greater control over the manufacturing sector to produce necessary equipment in an emergency, until March 27. Governors such as Andrew Cuomo of New York, where deaths had exceeded 500 by then, members of Congress, and health officials had been pressuring the President to invoke the act for weeks. Yet even when he did use it at the end of March, it was only directed at General Motors to produce ventilators. He waited until April 2 to widen the scope of its use to acquire respirators and ventilators from more companies.
On March 16, the Trump administration issued official social distancing guidelines.
On March 21, stay-at-home orders were issued by St. Louis City and St. Louis County officials.
During Trump’s White House briefing two days later, he stated, “America will again, and soon, be open for business — very soon — a lot sooner than three or four months that somebody was suggesting. […] We’re not going to let the cure be worse than the problem.” The next day, Trump said in an interview with Fox News that he wanted to see the nation open by Easter. This statement was met by alarm from health experts across the country who warned against relaxing social distancing restrictions too early. Dr. Ekenga said (on March 27, for reference), “Us mere mortal humans, we can’t really determine the timeline of the virus. And I would say you can’t really put a timeline on how long we need to do social distancing. […] What happens if you stop this early is that we could have a resurgence of cases. […] We’re not even at the peak of the pandemic here in the US. We’re just at the beginning. […] We won’t really see how effective these measures are until about three weeks to a month from now.”
In the same interview, Trump also compared the deadly coronavirus pandemic to the flu, saying, “we’ve never closed down the country for the flu.” This is a scientifically false comparison due to several factors, including the lack of coronavirus vaccine and the fact that it is about twice as contagious as the flu and an estimated 10 times deadlier, as an NPR fact check revealed.
Donald Trump is grossly unqualified to lead the nation during this crisis. If a competent administration had been in place and decisive action had been taken earlier, fewer Americans would be suffering and the spread of coronavirus could have been stopped earlier. But due to the blatant negligence of the Trump administration, it’s already too late.