The Trump administration ignored warning signs, failed to adequately prepare for PPE shortages, botched the rollout of tests, and repeatedly downplayed the severity of the coronavirus.
The novel coronavirus outbreak didn’t become a full-fledged pandemic until March, but with each passing day, it’s become increasingly clear that President Trump and his administration failed to heed numerous warning signs and wasted two months of valuable time that could have been used to prepare for the devastation now being unleashed on the United States.
Here are some of the ways in which the Trump administration’s failures have affected the nation’s response to the pandemic.
Ignoring Warning Signs
American intelligence officials issued a warning as far back as late November that a contagion was spreading through China’s Wuhan region, ABC News reported on Wednesday. This warning, which was detailed in a November intelligence report by the military’s National Center for Medical Intelligence, was the result of analysis of wire and computer intercepts, along with satellite images.
Analysts determined that the emerging disease could lead to a “cataclysmic event,” and according to ABC News, the report was briefed “multiple times” to the White House and various federal agencies. President Trump reportedly even received a detailed explanation of the problem in his daily brief of intelligence matters in early January, weeks before the virus emerged in the U.S., but then spent the better part of January and February downplaying the severity of the virus.
On Monday, the New York Times also reported that Trump’s trade advisor, Peter Navarro, had written his own memo in late January warning the administration that the coronavirus could cost the U.S. trillions of dollars and put millions of American lives at risk.
“The lack of immune protection or an existing cure or vaccine would leave Americans defenseless in the case of a full-blown coronavirus outbreak on U.S. soil,” Navarro wrote in his Jan. 29 memo. “This lack of protection elevates the risk of the coronavirus evolving into a full-blown pandemic, imperiling the lives of millions of Americans.”
Navarro’s warning appears to have gone unheeded, and President Donald Trump has denied he ever saw the January memo or a follow-up February memo from Navarro—even though that second memo was addressed to Trump directly through the offices of the National Security Council, Trump’s then-chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, and the White House coronavirus task force.
“I didn’t see them. I didn’t look for them,” Trump told reporters on Monday during a coronavirus task force news briefing.
The Trump administration also ignored the results of a 2019 simulated exercise imagining how a modern-day influenza pandemic would affect the United States. In the simulation, 110 million Americans were expected to become ill, leading 7.7 million people to be hospitalized and 586,000 Americans to die. The results of that scenario, reported by the New York Times in March, showed how underfunded, underprepared, and uncoordinated the federal government would be in fighting a novel pandemic.
The Pentagon also knew a pandemic caused by a novel coronavirus was likely and warned the Trump administration of such a possibility in 2017. According to exclusive documents obtained by The Nation, the Pentagon even predicted the shortages of masks, hospital beds, and ventilators that American hospitals are currently experiencing. The documents, which detail how the U.S. military could respond to such a pandemic, are eerily prescient.
“The most likely and significant threat is a novel respiratory disease, particularly a novel influenza disease,” the military plan states. COVID-19 is a respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and the document specifically cites coronaviruses on several occasions, in one instance saying, “Coronavirus infections [are] common around the world.”
Despite all these warnings, Trump has repeatedly insisted that no one could have seen the coronavirus coming.
“Nobody knew there would be a pandemic or epidemic of this proportion. Nobody has ever seen anything like this before,” Trump said on March 19, contradicting the reality that his own Department of Health and Human Services oversaw the simulation.
American hospitals are facing “severe” and “widespread shortages” of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as N95 masks and surgical masks, as well as shortages of medical equipment, such as ventilators according to a new watchdog report from the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General.
Doctors and nurses from across the country have spoken out about the PPE shortage and how it puts their lives—and their patients’ lives—at risk. Many doctors and nurses are breaking protocol and reusing masks, while others have been forced to use swim goggles, bandanas, and trash bags to protect themselves. Some nurses have even quit their jobs over the lack of protections.
That the United States, the wealthiest country in the world, failed to prepare enough supplies to deal with the coronavirus has become something of a scandal, especially because a 69-page National Security Council playbook on fighting pandemics includes guidance on when and how to start obtaining PPE.
The Trump administration ignored that playbook, which says the government should have begun efforts to obtain personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves, and gowns in mid to late January. Instead, as the Associated Press reported this week, the Trump administration squandered nearly two months that could have been used to bolster the federal stockpile of critically needed medical supplies and equipment.
Federal agencies waited until mid-March to begin placing bulk orders of N95 respirator masks, mechanical ventilators, and other equipment needed by front-line health care workers. By that time, hospitals in several states were treating thousands of infected patients without adequate equipment and pleading for shipments from the Strategic National Stockpile. That federal cache of supplies was created more than 20 years ago to help bridge gaps in the medical and pharmaceutical supply chains during a national emergency.
Now, three months into the crisis, that stockpile is nearly drained just as the number of patients needing critical care is surging. Some state and local officials report receiving broken ventilators and decade-old dry-rotted masks.
“We basically wasted two months,” Kathleen Sebelius, health and human services secretary during the Obama administration, told the AP.
Rather than do everything he can to help states deal with the PPE crisis now, Trump has instead called the federal government a “backup,” told states to find supplies on their own, interfered with their efforts to do just that, and accused governors of lying about their needs.
The national shortage of COVID-19 tests has been well-documented, but the highlights bear repeating: After deciding not to adopt the test used by the World Health organization, the CDC botched the development of its first coronavirus test, which dramatically slowed the roll-out of tests and caused a devastating delay.
The federal government was also slow to engage the private sector and academic labs in testing; the Food and Drug administration waited until Feb. 29 to engage private labs in the testing space. These delays and shortages caused the government to issue strict, inconsistent, and ever-evolving guidelines on who could be tested for COVID-19. The Trump administration’s testing failures were so severe that in February, as more people across the U.S. became sick, government labs processed only 352 COVID-19 tests, an average of only 12 per day in a nation of more than 300 million people, according to an AP analysis of CDC data.
While testing has since ramped up, issues remain. The shortage of tests remains substantial, patients have reported waits of up to two weeks to receive test results, and many labs are now short on the swabs and chemicals needed to run the test.
As Bloomberg wrote on Tuesday, “Coronavirus testing has become a massive logistical failure, one that’s made it impossible to know how much the virus has truly spread.”
The U.S. has by far the most known cases of COVID-19 in the world, with more than 430,000 confirmed cases. Nearly 15,000 Americans have died as of Wednesday evening. While the U.S. has now completed two million tests according to the COVID Tracking Project, the country continues to lag behind many other countries in testing per capita. In short, the surge in tests came entirely too late.
“Many local communities are flying blind, making decisions in the absence of full information largely due to the failure of the federal government to provide sufficient testing capacity,” Chrissie Juliano, executive director of the Big Cities Health Coalition, told the New York Times. “This testing shortage, and lack of available information about the actual burden of the virus, has set our country’s response back by an order of magnitude we will never know.”
Downplaying the Coronavirus
Despite the various warnings the administration received about the coronavirus, President Trump has repeatedly downplayed the dangers of the virus. Since late January, Trump has said “We have it totally under control,” declared that the virus would “go away in April,” said the number of cases would soon be “down close to zero,” called it a democratic “hoax,” and compared it to the flu.
Trump has minimized the risks of the coronavirus dozens of times, doing so as recently as late March, after his own administration had already issued stringent “social distancing” guidelines.
The president has also refused to take any responsibility for the administration’s missteps, and has instead tried to deflect blame onto Democrats, former President Obama, China, the media, and the World Health Organization. He has also said that he made his previous comments minimizing the severity of the virus because he regards himself as America’s cheerleader.
He does not appear to be succeeding, either as cheerleader or president. A new CNN poll released Wednesday found that 55% of Americans think the federal government has done a “poor job” of preventing the spread of COVID-19, while only 41% think it has done a good job. Similarly, 52% said they disapprove of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and 55% said they think he could be doing more to fight the pandemic.
Only 43% of Americans think Trump is doing everything he can.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.