WASHINGTON – The Trump administration’s response to global outbreaks of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has been riven by missteps.
As well as problems developing and distributing a test for the infection, there have been discordant public messages, with some fearing that the president’s assertions the virus is contained may be proved wrong.
An initial test for the virus developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was plagued by technical problems and has been in short supply.
According to a report by the Washington Post, a decision by the State Department to allow infected Americans to return home from Japan on the same plane as hundreds of uninfected citizens came over the objections of health authorities.
Federal health workers processing Americans evacuated from the outbreak’s epicenter in the Chinese city of Wuhan lacked adequate training and protective gear, according to a whistle-blower complaint.
Most crucially, President Donald Trump and the government’s health care authorities have appeared to be at odds about whether the country should regard the outbreak as a threat.
The president has repeatedly said the risk is low, even assuring Americans that they’re unlikely to die from an infection. While that’s true, the CDC has said an American outbreak would likely cause widespread disruptions in everyday life, including closed schools and canceled business meetings.
Administration officials have, at times, transparently signaled their political concerns. “The way he is handling this, it will have a very positive effect on his re-election campaign,” Trump’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said Friday.
The crisis has tested a president who has damaged his credibility with frequent false statements, and who has warred with career government officials on whom he must now rely to prevent a full-blown outbreak.
“So far, we have lost nobody to coronavirus in the United States. Nobody,” Trump told a cheering crowd at a campaign rally in Charleston, South Carolina, on Friday night, crediting his policies. “And it doesn’t mean we won’t.”
Trump also cast the widening COVID-19 crisis in bluntly political terms. Democrats, he said, have found “their new hoax.”
The mixed messages from the administration have alarmed investors, contributing to sharp declines in the stock market — a barometer by which Trump has often measured his presidency.
The benchmark S&P 500 index fell more than 11 percent in five days, in its worst week since the financial crisis. Stocks have made a comeback this week.
Top White House officials have vehemently defended their response and sought to reassure Americans they are at low risk of being infected. Some have blamed news outlets for exaggerating the threat in an effort to damage Trump’s re-election campaign.
“The reason you’re seeing so much attention to it today is that they think this is going to be what brings down the president,” acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference near Washington. “That’s what this is all about.”
As the outbreak came into focus in China’s Hubei province last month, the administration responded aggressively, announcing China travel restrictions on Jan. 31 aiming to prevent the virus being brought to the country.
Trump has repeatedly congratulated himself for that decision, claiming the travel curbs were opposed by Democrats but prevented a wider U.S. outbreak.
But mistakes would follow, starting with CDC-designed test kits for the coronavirus — an essential tool for health authorities to detect infections before they blossom into outbreaks.
An initial version was hampered by technical problems, and across the U.S. fewer than 2,000 people had been checked for the virus by Thursday — a bare fraction of those in other large countries.
It took at least a week for health authorities to confirm that a California case without a known origin did indeed involve the virus. Tests were not done initially because the person didn’t meet CDC criteria, according to the University of California-Davis Medical Center, which is treating the patient.
The CDC said later it tested the patient as soon as it was aware of the request.
The hospital said it had asked a “small number” of employees who had contact with the patient before infection with the virus was confirmed to stay home and monitor their own temperatures. Spokespeople for the hospital didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The CDC announced this week it would allow state and local labs to modify the test in order to ease delays.
The government also came under fire after 14 American cruise-ship passengers infected by the virus were allowed to fly home from Japan on the same plane with hundreds of others who were uninfected, according to The Washington Post.
The U.S. State Department ordered the move over the objection of officials at the CDC, the paper reported. Trump was angered by the decision, according to The New York Times.
U.S. officials said that all 328 American passengers aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship had shown no symptoms after a quarantine and exams, and that only after the evacuation had begun were they informed by Japan that 14 had tested positive. The decision was made to transport all passengers back to the U.S., with the ill patients sitting in a cordoned-off area of the airplane.
Then this week, an attorney representing a government whistle-blower said that his client had filed a report accusing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services of putting its employees in harm’s way. The whistle-blower charged that federal health workers were ordered to process Americans returning from Wuhan without adequate training or protective gear, according to a person familiar with the complaint.
The health department said it was taking the complaint “seriously” while a top State Department medical official, William Walters, told lawmakers on Thursday that “every precaution has been taken” for workers encountering virus patients.
Lawmakers in both parties criticized the White House after it requested $2.5 billion in emergency funding to prevent an outbreak, an amount they considered too low. Democrats said the proposal showed the president was not taking the threat seriously.
Congressional Democrats also said the administration had left the country ill-prepared for an outbreak by shuttering dozens of overseas anti-pandemic programs and ousting the National Security Council’s global health security expert in 2018.
The president has responded by lashing out at Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, saying they only criticized his funding request in order to damage his re-election campaign. Schumer has proposed an $8.5 billion package of emergency funding.
But by last Wednesday, Trump seemed resigned to a bigger spending bill, telling reporters, “if they want to give more, we’ll do more.” Lawmakers on Friday were drafting a proposal between $6 billion and $8 billion, according to people familiar with the talks.
Trump’s pronouncements on the virus, which often haven’t comported with those of scientific agencies in the government, have probably caused him the most trouble on Wall Street.
Concluding a two-day trip to India, Trump told reporters last Tuesday that there were “very few” Americans who had contracted the virus and that the problem would eventually “go away.”
The next day, top CDC official Nancy Messonnier told reporters that an outbreak in the U.S. was inevitable.
“It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen, and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” she said.
Top health officials have warned the virus could cause disruptions to daily life — concerns Mulvaney echoed on Friday. He said schools could close and public transportation systems might be affected.
Trump sought to present a unified government at a White House news conference on Wednesday alongside both political appointees, such as Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, and career officials, including CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Shuchat. Together, they said the risk to average Americans remained low but that the government was taking every precaution to prevent its spread.
The president also made a surprise announcement: Vice President Mike Pence would take control of the government-wide response. The move was meant to show the administration was addressing the virus with a new level of urgency. Trump said he picked Pence because he has “a certain talent” for responding to public-health crises.
But Democrats and public health experts almost immediately disputed Pence’s credentials, pointing to his handling of a 2015 AIDS outbreak in Indiana when he was that state’s governor.
Pence waited two months then to declare a state of emergency, and disagreed with federal health experts who called for the distribution of clean needles to stem the outbreak, which was blamed on injections of the painkiller Opana.
A devout Christian, Pence said he would pray on his response. Days later, he reversed course and allowed the distribution of syringes.