The Trump administration’s failed response to the coronavirus pandemic began with the decision to dismantle the National Security Council’s pandemic response team in spring 2018. The administration’s repeated calls to cut the budget for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health agencies set the stage for the president’s disorganized and reckless response to the pandemic. This was made far worse by Trump’s repeated dismissal of warnings about the serious threat posed by the coronavirus in the White House’s first press briefings.
As the president now pushes for a quick reopening of the shuttered U.S. economy, governors across the U.S., both Democrats and Republicans decry the federal government’s failure to coordinate distribution of COVID-19 tests. Public health experts maintain that the country can only phase out lockdown restrictions with widespread testing. While the U.S. is currently processing only 150,000 tests per day, Harvard researchers estimate that the U.S. will have to conduct more than half a million tests per day to re-open the country in the months ahead.
With criticism of the president’s handling of the crisis rising and his poll numbers plummeting, Trump has resorted to blame shifting. His public denunciations of China and the World Health Organization and his tweet that he’ll suspend all immigration to the U.S. are designed to distract the nation from his costly failure of leadership. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Dr. Michael Carome, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, who examines the consequences of not having a nationally coordinated testing program and the danger of relaxing lockdown restrictions too soon.
DR. MICHAEL CAROME: If we’re going to faithfully resume business in this country to get our economy up and running again, the only way to do that safely and actually to do it effectively is to be able to identify everyone who has symptoms consistent with the coronavirus. And that’s a lot of people. And so all those people we need to test for whether or not they have active viral infection with the coronavirus. And that requires a massive effort funded by the federal government, coordinated by the federal government to distribute the tests, presumably through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC.
And then to monitor all of those results and any time someone tests positive, then we need a system of tracing those contacts to identify every person who had contact with an infected person either shortly before they were symptomatic or while they were symptomatic. And those people need to be tracked down, isolated for at least 14 days and preferably tested to see if they’re infected. And that’s the only way — that type of massive program for testing and identifying symptomatic and asymptomatic cases and tracing all of their contacts and isolating those contacts – that’s the only way we’re going to be able to safely resume “business as usual” in this country.
SCOTT HARRIS: Dr. Carome, what’s the danger of opening business as usual here in this country too soon? We have several states now that are moving to reopen beaches, some businesses. And of course, President Trump is a cheerleader for opening the country as soon as possible, even against the advice of public health experts. There’s a concern that the virus could rebound with a new deadly spike. What’s your read on the reopening scenario that both the White House has rolled out in the various states?
DR. MICHAEL CAROME: Yeah. You know, I think it’s absurd to even think about reopening businesses, including very large venues like sports arenas and movie theaters and restaurants or allowing non-essential travel in the absence of the type of robust federal testing and tracing program that we just talked about. And so, consistent with the administration’s disastrous response to the pandemic, you know, starting in January, the plan they put out last week is a recipe for many more preventable deaths and spikes and illnesses and further suffering. And that’s what’s going to happen if we open up the economy too quickly. And Trump’s obviously very motivated to do that. He sees that the economic damage that the pandemic has rendered and part of that damage is because of the inability of his administration to have an effective response early on.
You know, he’s desperate to see the reversal on that so that he can get re-elected. That’s his sole interest. It’s clear that from the propaganda briefings he gives every night. So by sending a green light basically to states to begin reopening businesses and by encouraging demonstrators in certain states to seek liberation from the social distancing guidelines that his own administration put out. You know, he has all but guaranteed that we’re going to see spikes and illnesses across the country. More Americans are going to be infected more than that otherwise were going die. And that itself is going to render more economic damage and delay the recovery ultimately. So he’s going to lose on both counts.
SCOTT HARRIS: In recent days, we’ve seen President Trump and his administration move to blame-shifting both towards the World Health Organization, China and Democratic governors. Tell us a little bit about the validity of some of these criticisms that Trump has leveled at China and the World Health Organization and the handling of the pandemic by some of his opponents among Democratic governors.
DR. MICHAEL CAROME: So when I hear the various criticisms he lays out against China and WHO, it’s like he’s projecting his own failures onto them. I mean every, just about everything he said about WHO, like downplaying the pandemic. Well those are exactly the things that Trump did early on in January. In fact, he praised China for its response early on. And when he talks about, you know, a lack of transparency about what’s going on in China – well, he has through his various briefings, sown this information and lies about the state of the pandemic in this country. And those are just two examples of where he’s guilty of the same things he’s alleging China and the WHO did.
This virus does not distinguish between countries and organizations. Every human being in the world is susceptible to this illness because we’ve never been exposed to it before and have no immunity to it. And at this point, regardless of what China could have done better or what the WHO could have done better, we’re now faced with the circumstance with the most cases of anywhere now in the United States. A person in the United States who’s going to get infected, they’re going to get it from one of their neighbors or friends or coworkers, not from someone in China at this point. So leveling these types of charges is just not helpful to the type of coordinated international response we need to bring this pandemic under control.
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