Trump’s lethal failure to face the COVID pandemic. Part 1: He was warned
When Donald Trump took office on 20th January 2017, he had no idea he would be facing the biggest pandemic for a hundred years, and Americans had no idea that roughly as many of them would die of COVID-19 on his watch as died in World War II, with tens of thousands more in the pipeline. Long before Coronavirus was heard of, he was not only neglecting pandemic preparation at home and abroad, he was actively weakening and dismantling it.
In less than a month, former Director of USAID’s Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance Jeremy Konyndyk, who handled the the Ebola response, was warning that Trump was undermining America’s crisis management capability and said Trump was not ready to handle a global crisis.
In May 2017 there were warnings that the world was not ready for the next pandemic, including by the US Intelligence Community. And yet, Trump’s first budget included cuts of $136 million cut to the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, $65 million to the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases and $76 million to the CDC Center for Global Health, as well as science and medical research. As Rep. Tom Cole R-OK said, “Cutting the Centers for Disease Control, I think, leaves you very vulnerable and the American people very vulnerable… Sometime in the president’s term, you will have a pandemic. You will have a Zika, you will have an Ebola.”
Trump inherited less PPE than he should have, but he was warned in June 2017. Whilst the Obama administration spent millions on detailed plans for a new machine designed to churn out millions of protective respirator masks at high speed during a pandemic, when Trump received the plans he did not order any.
2018 began with a warning that 100 years before, “Spanish” flu had killed tens of millions of people. Soon after came the news that the CDC was to cut efforts to prevent global disease outbreak by 80% and Trump signed a bill cutting $1.35 billion in funding for its Prevention and Public Health Fund.
Shortly afterwards there were more dire warnings of the threat of a pandemic by the WHO, Bill Gates and the Director of National Intelligence who warned of the “potential for a severe global health emergency that could lead to major economic and societal disruptions.” While even school children were planning for a pandemic, the Trump administration was not only not doing anything to prepare, but it was actively reducing America’s ability to respond.
Around the same time, H.R. McMaster was replaced by John Bolton as National Security Adviser. The following day, he fired Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert, who had sounded the alarm, and fired or dispersed the pandemic response team.
In early May 2018, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security held a day-long pandemic tabletop exercise, ‘Clade X’. Was the White House paying attention? No, it proposed cutting global health budget, including $252 million for health security preparedness. Luciana Borio, NSC director of medical and biodefense preparedness, said: “The threat of pandemic flu is the number one health security concern. Are we ready to respond? I fear the answer is no.”
Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer left and the global health security team was disbanded, leaving “no single official at the highest levels of the administration who focuses only on global health security.” In response, Stephen Schwartz tweeted, “When the next pandemic occurs (and make no mistake, it will) and the federal government is unable to respond in a coordinated and effective fashion to protect the lives of US citizens and others, this decision by John Bolton and Donald Trump will be why.”
Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer left and the global health security team was disbanded, Representatives Gerald E. Connoly and Dr. Ami Bera of the House Foreign Affairs Committee wrote to John Bolton “to express deep concerns with several recent actions the White House has taken to downgrade the importance of global health security… We fear these recent decisions will leave the United States vulnerable to pandemics and commit us to a strategy of triage should one occur.”
Senator Sherrod Brown wrote to Trump: “In our globalized world, where diseases are never more than a plane ride away, we must do all we can to prepare for the next, inevitable outbreak and keep Americans safe from disease. I urge you to act swiftly in reaffirming your commitment to global health security by taking immediate action to designate senior level NSC personnel to focus on global health security, supporting adequate and appropriate funding for global health security initiatives, and leading the way in preparing for the next pandemic threat.”
The White House walked back its proposal to cut Ebola funds. The White House issued a Presidential Memorandum on the Support for National Biodefense and a National Biodefense Strategy.
In 2018 Ed Yong asked, “The Next Plague Is Coming. Is America Ready?” and early in January the Intelligence Community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment warned: “We assess that the United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, strain international resources, and increase calls on the United States for support.”
In January 2019 former Vice President Joe Biden, who had been in office during swine flu and Ebola outbreaks, and who in less than a year would become President-elect, made it more personal. He said, “To be blunt, I am concerned that the Trump administration’s shortsighted policies have left us unprepared for a dangerous epidemic that will come sooner or later.” Later Gabriel Schoenfeld wrote, “Trump tweeted heartlessly about Ebola in 2014. He’s ill-equipped to handle 2019 outbreak.”
The warnings were coming thick and fast by mid 2019. Joe Lieberman & Tom Ridge warned, “Measles outbreak drains resources we may need for a future epidemic or bioterrorist attack.” A FEMA report warned of pandemic vulnerability months before COVID-19, issuing the “2019 National Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment”
Not everyone in the White House was completely blind to the danger. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said, “The thing that people ask what keeps you most up at night in the biodefense world, pandemic flu, of course. I think everyone in this room probably shares that concern.” Nevertheless, despite State AGs warning in 2018 that nursing home regulatory changes would “not only threaten the mental and physical security of some of the most vulnerable residents of our states” but short circuit their states’ ability to criminally prosecute bad actors in the industry,” the Trump Administration was Relaxing Oversight of Nursing Homes, issuing “Medicare and Medicaid Programs; Requirements for Long-Term Care Facilities: Regulatory Provisions To Promote Efficiency, and Transparency”. This despite people in nursing homes being particularly vulnerable to many pandemics.
Early in his administration, Trump had slashed CDC staff inside China and made cuts to the NSF, USAID and USDA. In July 2019 Dr. Linda Quick, the medical epidemiologist embedded in China’s disease control agency left, anticipating the discontinuation of her post in September. Bao-Ping Zhu, the former CDC official who held the role between 2007–2011, said “If someone had been there, public health officials and governments across the world could have moved much faster.”
In August 2019, the Contract to maintain over 2100 ventilators in the federal government’s emergency supply lapsed. In September, funding for PREDICT ran out. It was a program run by the United States Agency for International Development, that was designed to identify and prevent pandemics related to animal-born viruses.
It is possible, though far from proven, that COVID-19 already existed. Network analysis of coronavirus genomes estimated that it could have begun by 13 September. An analysis of hospital parking lot occupancy and search engine queries showed that something unusual, possibly COVID-19, was going on in Wuhan in the fall.
Also in September, a report by The Council of Economic Advisers, “Mitigating the Impact of Pandemic Influenza through Vaccine Innovation” warned that a pandemic disease could kill a half million Americans and devastate the economy, saying “The United States is unprepared to deliver a sufficient number of vaccine doses quickly enough to stop the rapid initial spread of a pandemic virus”, and “Pandemic influenza is a low-probability but high-cost problem that should not be ignored. The current influenza vaccine manufacturing infrastructure in the U.S. is dependent on egg-based production that is too slow to produce adequate doses of vaccines for unexpected pandemic outbreaks and may impair vaccine efficacy. This could lead to tremendous, avoidable costs”.
Also in October, the draft report of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Operation Contagion simulation warned that “The current medical countermeasure supply chain and production capacity cannot meet the demands imposed by nations during a global influenza pandemic”. The 2019 Global Health Security Index produced a report that warned, “None of these 195 countries — the U.S. included — is fully prepared for a pandemic”.
Former vice president and current president-elect Joe Biden tweeted, “We are not prepared for a pandemic. Trump has rolled back progress President Obama and I made to strengthen global health security. We need leadership that builds public trust, focuses on real threats, and mobilizes the world to stop outbreaks before they reach our shores. https://twitter.com/washingtonpost/status/1187386520837246976."
In November, The Center for Strategic & International Studies issued a report saying, “Health security is national security. Strong, coherent, senior-level leadership at the NSC is essential to guarantee effective oversight of global health security and biodefense policy and spending, speed and rigor in decision making, and reliable White House engagement and coordination when dangerous pandemics inevitably strike.” It has been reported that an Intelligence report warned of coronavirus crisis as early as November, but that was denied by NCMI. According to Israeli TV, the US alerted Israel and NATO in November.
On 4 December, Robert Kadlec, MD, MTM&H, MS Assistant Secretary For Preparedness and Response, testified to the House that the US will struggle to get medical supplies for the flu season as they are manufactured abroad.
On 17 November, the first case of what was to become known as COVID-19 was reported in Wuhan, according to the South China Morning Post Officially, the first case fell ill on 1 December. The first case that the WHO heard about fell ill on 8 December.
Whenever patient zero became ill, the virus appears to have spread beyond China by December. According to the CDC, it was probably in US as early as December 2019. A British man who fell ill on Dec 15 2019 and who had not traveled died of COVID on Jan 30 2020. COVID-19 was present in northern Italy as early as 1 January. Possibly the first French case was on 27 December, as was the first in Washington.
On 31 December 2019, China reported the Wuhan pneumonia to the WHO. Taipei said they’d alerted the WHO at the end of December about the risk of human-to-human transmission but its concerns were not passed on to other countries. Doctors and nurses in Wuhan warned Chinese media about the risk of human-to-human transmission as early as late December. Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan tightened inbound screening. Alberta and Canada acted on stories of a virus in Wuhan and ordered a lot more PPE. COVID-19 may have been in Los Angeles as early as December 2019.
Meanwhile, Trump played golf. In December 2019, Trump spent part of 11 days at golf clubs
On 31 December 2019, at Mar-a-Lago, Trump said “We’re going to have a great year, I predict.” How wrong he was, and at such a terrible cost in lives.