In January, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency. Now, a report by the Associated Press reveals that the Trump administration squandered months instead of preparing for the coming pandemic. The administration's lackluster response is having deadly consequences.
Federal purchasing contracts reviewed by AP show that federal agencies did not begin placing bulk orders of medical equipment until mid-March. That means rather than acting as soon as the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, the Trump administration waited two months before placing bulk orders of N95 masks and ventilators — essential equipment for health workers battling coronavirus.
In early February, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed that the government sent nearly 18 tons of donated medical supplies to China. Just a few weeks later, the White House sent Congress a $2.5 billion funding request to respond to the outbreak in the U.S. At the time, however, Health Secretary Alex Azar told lawmakers that "the immediate risk to the American public remains low." All the while, President Trump declined to act, even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention detected the first suspected case of local coronavirus transmission and confirmed the first death reported in the U.S. in February.
Meanwhile, the orders that the federal government did finally place last month are unlikely to be of much help for another couple of weeks yet. Records reviewed by AP show that HHS made a $4.8 million order on March 12 for N95 masks from 3M. The agency placed a second $173 million order on March 21. However, the contracts don't require 3M to begin deliveries until the end of April, when the pandemic is projected to reach its peak, per AP's reporting.
The lack of action on the administration's part is further reflected in a government watchdog report that found hospitals are dealing with "severe" shortages of medical supplies, along with reports of Alabama's Montgomery County receiving over 5,000 rotten medical masks from the national stockpile. The masks had reportedly expired in 2010.
Of course, it's not like the White House really wants states using the stockpile to begin with. At one of the president's daily coronavirus briefings last week, Jared Kushner, Trump's adviser and son-in-law, said, “The notion of the federal stockpile was it’s supposed to be our stockpile. It’s not supposed to be state stockpiles that they then use.”
In early March, Trump himself was still downplaying the impacts of the coronavirus on Twitter. "So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life and the economy go on," Trump wrote March 9. "At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!"
Less than a month after Trump's tweet, there are nearly 10,000 confirmed coronavirus deaths in the United States, and health care professionals have warned that reported death rates are likely significantly lower than the reality. As a California emergency room doctor told BuzzFeed News: "The numbers are grossly underreported. I know for a fact that we’ve had three deaths in one county where only one is listed on the website."
Either way, the rapidly climbing amount of cases and deaths illustrates how disastrous the government's response to coronavirus has been. From Trump refusing to invoke the Defense Production Act until mid-March — because he reportedly didn't want to upset corporate CEOs by compelling them to manufacture much-needed medical gear — to his trend of ignoring health experts in favor of his own whims, the result has been the deaths of thousands of Americans.
Lately, Trump has turned to another flawed solution for his coronavirus problem, pushing the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the illness despite the fact that there is scant scientific evidence of its efficacy. On Sunday, after the president touted the drug at a White House press briefing, Ohio state Rep. Tavia Galonski (D) tweeted, "I can't take it anymore. I've been to The Hague. I'm making a referral for crimes against humanity tomorrow."
Experts warn that there will likely be millions of coronavirus cases, and between 100,000 to 200,000 deaths in the United States alone. Trump may have extended nationwide social distancing, backtracking on his hopes to restart the economy by Easter, but it's not enough to make up for the months wasted.
In a pandemic, every second counts. States should not have been left with supply shortages, and health care professionals should not be caring for coronavirus patients without adequate protection for themselves. As the number of reported cases continues to climb, it's hard to not wonder how many people will die due to the administration's early incompetence.