erik lundegaard

Saturday April 04, 2020

The Chaotic, Leaderless White House Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic: A Timeline

This is your weekend read. Or your weekday read if you see this on Monday. Or on Tuesday. Or June 15. I don't care, just read it. Here's the full hed/sub from The Washington Post:

The U.S. was beset by denial and dysfunction as the coronavirus raged: From the Oval Office to the CDC, political and institutional failures cascaded through the system and opportunities to mitigate the pandemic were lost.

It's particularly enlightening on the behind-the-scenes stuff from the early days of the outbreak. Who comes off poorly? China, Xi Jinping, the CDC, Steve Mnuchin, Jared Kushner, but particularly Donald Trump, who didn't lead, didn't see, dismissed and downplayed. He golfed while COVID burned through the world.

Here's a timeline based on the story:

  • Dec. 31: CDC learns of cluster of cases in China
  • Jan. 3: CDC director Robert Redfield receives call from Chinese counterpart on Covid-19, tells Alex Azar, secretary of HHS, who tells the White House
  • Jan. 6: Redfield offers to send U.S. team to China to help (and get virus sample) but is rebuffed for weeks
  • Week of Jan. 6: Intra-agency task force of Redfield, Azar, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, begins convening
  • Jan. 13: First case outside China is reported in Thailand
  • Jan. 14: China still claims no evidence of person-to-person transmission
  • Mid-January: Robert Kadlec, a physician who serves as assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS, instructs subordinates to draw up contingency plans for enforcing the Defense Production Act
  • Jan. 18: Trump, in Mar-a-Lago, is briefed extensively via phone by Azar; Trump complains about other matters
  • Jan. 21: First confirmed case in U.S./Seattle
  • Jan. 23: China shuts down Wuhan province
  • Late January: China refuses to share virus sample so U.S. can develop tests
  • Jan. 22: Trump received first press query about coronavirus, says “We have it totally under control. It's one person coming in from China. . . . It's going to be just fine”
  • Jan. 24: Beijing officials block virus-sample transfer from Wuhan Institute of Virology to Univ. of Texas lab
  • Late January/early February: White House task force convenes, including chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, dep. national security adviser Matthew Pottinger, Azar and Fauci Focus is on extracting Americans from China and closing border with China. No serious focus on testing or supplies
  • Jan. 31: Azar announces restrictions barring any non-U.S. citizen who had been in China during the preceding two weeks from entering U.S. “But by that point, 300,000 people had come into the United States from China over the previous month”
  • Early February: Pottinger pushes for travel ban on Italy; met with resistance from Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who worries about affect on economy
  • Early February: Panic from public health officials: “A national stockpile of N95 protective masks, gowns, gloves and other supplies was already woefully inadequate after years of underfunding”
  • Feb. 5: Azar submits request to OMB for $4 billion to combat coronavirus; he's accused and dismissed as alarmist. Several weeks later, they whittle it down to $2.5 billion but Congress approves at $8 billion version, which Trump signs into law on March 8—a month later. The U.S. “missed a narrow window to stockpile ventilators, masks and other protective gear before the administration was bidding against many other desperate nations, and state officials fed up with federal failures began scouring for supplies themselves”
  • Feb. 6: As the World Health Organization begins shipping 250,000 test kits to labs around the world, the CDC starts distributing 90 kits to state-run health labs; they turn out to be unreliable
  • February: Stephen Hahn, the FDA commissioner, seeks authority to call private diagnostic and pharmaceutical companies to enlist their help in creating tests; he's told to “stand down”
  • Feb. 9: Fauci and Redfield hold coronavirus meeting with governors, who come away alarmed by the size of the potential crisis
  • Feb. 10: Trump tells supporters at campaign rally, “By April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away”
  • February: Trump goes golfing six times
  • Late February: U.S. officials discover indications that the CDC laboratory is failing basic quality-control standards
  • Feb. 29: CDC allows private labs to develop own diagnostics
  • Feb. 29: First U.S. citizen dies of COVID-19 in Washington state
  • March 6: Trump tours CDC, proclaims CDC tests perfect and “‘anybody who wants a test will get a test,’ a promise that nearly a month later remains unmet”

Some other key grafs:

For weeks, [Trump] had barely uttered a word about the crisis that didn't downplay its severity or propagate demonstrably false information. He dismissed the warnings of intelligence officials and top public health officials in his administration. ... In March, as state after state imposed sweeping new restrictions on their citizens' daily lives to protect them — triggering severe shudders in the economy — Trump second-guessed the lockdowns.

Trump spent many weeks shuffling responsibility for leading his administration's response to the crisis, putting Azar in charge of the task force at first, relying on Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser, for brief periods, before finally putting Vice President Pence in the role toward the end of February.

Then there's Jared:

A team reporting to Kushner commandeered space on the seventh floor of the HHS building to pursue a series of inchoate initiatives. One plan involved having Google create a website to direct those with symptoms to testing facilities that were supposed to spring up in Walmart parking lots across the country, but which never materialized. Another centered an idea advanced by Oracle Chairman Larry Ellison to use software to monitor the unproven use of anti-malaria drugs against the coronavirus pathogen.

So far, the plans have failed to come close to delivering on the promises made when they were touted in White House news conferences. The Kushner initiatives have, however, often interrupted the work of those under immense pressure to manage the U.S. response.

Read the whole thing. Memorize it. Carry it with you into November. Never forget. 

Posted at 11:02 AM on Saturday April 04, 2020 in category Politics  
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Twitter: @ErikLundegaard

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