Trump’s incompetence, authoritarian patterns continue with coronavirus response

Botched from the start

Our first inkling that the Trump administration was already bungling the coronavirus response came over a week ago when hundreds of Americans were evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship. Over CDC objections, the State Department allowed 14 infected patients to fly on the same plane as other individuals who had already completed quarantine and were deemed healthy, re-exposing them to the virus. “CDC did weigh in on this and explicitly recommended against it,” CDC’s principal deputy director, Anne Schuchat, said. Instead, the infected patients should have been sent to hospitals in Japan.

A whistleblower inside the Department of Health and Human Services submitted a formal complaint last week, seeking federal protection after she was “unfairly and improperly reassigned” for raising concerns about the agency’s handling of infected individuals. The complaint alleges that over a dozen HHS workers were not given appropriate training or appropriate gear to receive the first Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China. The workers were not tested for the virus after their interactions and were not quarantined themselves.

The complaint alleges HHS staffers were “improperly deployed” and were “not properly trained or equipped to operate in a public health emergency situation.” The complaint also alleges the workers were potentially exposed to coronavirus because appropriate steps were not taken to protect them and staffers were not trained in wearing personal protective equipment, even though they had face-to-face contact with returning passengers.

…about 13 ACF personnel were sent to Travis Air Force in Solano County, Calif., according to the complaint and the whistleblower’s lawyer, Ari Wilkenfeld. In Solano County this week, the first U.S. patient was confirmed to be infected with coronavirus who did not travel to a region where it is spreading or have known contact with someone diagnosed with the disease.

To sum up, the Trump administration brought infected Americans back to the U.S. over the objections of the CDC. HHS sent staff to interact with the infected population without proper training or protective equipment, Then, those staffers were allowed to mingle with the general public without monitoring or testing. Shortly thereafter, the first U.S.-derived case of coronavirus emerged nearby the airbase where the infected persons interacted with unprotected HHS workers.

As has become typical with this administration, when an individual raised the alarm, she was criticized and ordered to change position or be fired.

  • On Saturday, Sen. Ron Wyden sent a letter demanding answers from HHS Secretary Azar on the whistleblower report that HHS deployed untrained workers to coronavirus quarantine sites in California. “Such mismanagement on the part of HHS placed these human services staff at risk. Not only that, but the general public was also put at risk since your employees were immediately returned to their communities and jobs at the Department post-deployment, by commercial air flights with no precautions. I am alarmed, also, by reports of how the whistleblower has been treated by the Department after reporting that top HHS leaders dismissed concerns from managers and affected employees regarding this issue.”

Purges, vacancies, and slashing

The Trump administration is particularly unprepared to handle a pandemic due to Trump’s purges, failure to nominate confirmable leaders, and funding cuts.

For instance, when Trump came into office he had a global health security team, part of the National Security Council, in place from Obama’s administration. The team was disbanded by then-National Security Adviser John Bolton in 2018. It’s leader, NSC senior director for global health security and biodefense Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, also left the administration after organizing the federal response to malaria under George W. Bush and ebola under Barack Obama.

The U.S. has not had a Homeland Security Adviser since Trump fired Tom Bossert in 2018. One of the duties of Bossert included working with the NSC to coordinate a response to global pandemics. Another key figure, NSC’s director for medical and biodefense preparedness, has remained empty since Dr. Luciana Borio left in 2018.

Over the past two years, Trump has consistently cut funding for agencies responsible for protecting Americans from viral threats. In his most recent budget, for fiscal year 2021, Trump proposed a 16% funding reduction in CDC funding from 2020 spending levels. In fact, Trump has tried to cut funding to the CDC every single year. Each time, Congress has intervened and increased funding. Trump released his FY2021 budget proposal 11 days after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concerns.

Yet despite the funding secured by Congress, the CDC has still had to downsize its epidemic prevention activities worldwide.

CDC to cut by 80 percent efforts to prevent global disease outbreak…Four years after the United States pledged to help the world fight infectious-disease epidemics such as Ebola, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is dramatically downsizing its epidemic prevention activities in 39 out of 49 countries because money is running out, U.S. government officials said.

The Trump administration also cut funding for the Complex Crises Fund – an emergency pool of $30 million to be used by the Secretary of State to respond to crises like Ebola or coronavirus outbreaks.

  • Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren introduced legislation de-funding Trump’s border wall and re-appropriating the funds to HHS and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to combat the coronavirus. “Rather than use taxpayer dollars to pay for a monument to hate and division, my bill will help ensure that the federal government has the resources it needs to adequately respond to this emergency,” Warren said.

Who is in charge?

Skipping over HHS Secretary Alex Azar, Trump appointed Vice President Mike Pence to lead the nation’s response to the coronavirus. The choice is an odd one, seeing as Pence botched the government’s response to an HIV outbreak in Indiana. Then-Governor Pence was warned about an outbreak of HIV and hepatitis C in rural Indiana in 2014, yet was slow to respond, allowing the infections to spread:

The infections had reached 126 cases in a relatively small geographical area around January 2015, but it took until March of that year for Pence to declare a public health emergency.

…One study that ran in The Lancet medical journal in 2018 found that if Pence had acted sooner, a quicker public health response could have substantially reduced the total number of HIV infections. What was needed, experts said, was a needle exchange program, which is controversial but has been strongly recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an impactful way of preventing transmission of disease among drug users. At the time of the Indiana outbreak, it was illegal under state law and opposed by Pence. CNN

Greg Millett, director of public policy at amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, said Indiana’s HIV outbreak would have been “entirely preventable” if Pence had acted earlier in response to data that was available to Indiana public health officials and clearly showed an outbreak was imminent. AP

Pence isn’t the only one in over his head. Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Chad Smith could not even tell congress how many coronavirus cases the government is anticipating. Smith fumbled his responses to nearly every question, giving inaccurate information:

“Don’t you think you ought to check on that? You’re the secretary,” Sen. Kennedy said. “I think you ought to know that answer… Your numbers aren’t the same as CDC’s. Don’t you think you ought to contact them and find our whether you’re right or they’re right?” Kennedy said. “The American people deserve some straight answers on the coronavirus and I’m not getting them from you.” (clip)

Earlier in the week, Homeland Security’s acting deputy secretary Ken Cucinelli resorted to Twitter for help figuring out how to access a map of coronavirus outbreaks.

Where’s Trump?

Meanwhile, Trump’s greatest concern appears to be (1) the stock market and (2) blaming his opposition for the virus.

During his first news conference on Wednesday, Trump explained that the Dow’s 2,000-point dip was caused by the prospect of a Democrat becoming president:

“I think the financial markets are very upset when they look at the Democrat candidates standing on that stage, making fools out of themselves, and they say, ‘If we ever have a president like this,’” Trump said, referring to the most recent Democratic presidential debate held in South Carolina. “When they look at the statements made by the people standing behind those podiums, I think that has a huge effect.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi correctly pointed out that the timing of Trump’s claim doesn’t line up:

“The president said something so strange that you really have to wonder. He said the reason the market dropped was because of the debate the other night. Well, the market had dropped 1,000 points before the debate … Let’s not buy silly.”

Trump’s preoccupation with the stock market was confirmed by adding White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow to the coronavirus task force. Kudlow’s response to the outbreak? He told the Washington Post on Monday that investors should consider “buying these dips” in the stock market amid the coronavirus panic. The message was to take advantage of one-day slumps and “buy low.”

During a second press conference Saturday, Trump doubled down on blaming the Democrats for the coronavirus coverage. The night before, Trump said that “the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus…This is their new hoax.” When asked if he regretted using the word “hoax,” Trump responded: “No no no. ‘Hoax’ referring to the action [Dems] take to try and pin this on somebody, because we’ve done such a good job. The hoax is on them.”

In direct contrast to his claims, it appears that Trump is the one politicizing the virus, unable to resist the urge to score political points rather than urge Americans to be prepared for a significant health crisis.

In his Saturday press briefing, Trump confirmed that the administration is “very strongly” considering closing the southern border to prevent the spread of the coronavirus… despite the fact that there are five times as many confirmed in cases in Canada as in Mexico and the first U.S. death from the virus was near closer to the Canadian border (in my home state, Washington). The prior night, at a South Carolina rally, Trump falsely said that Democratic immigration policy is allowing the outbreak to spread:

“Whether it’s the virus that we’re talking about, or the many other public health threats, the Democrat policy of open borders is a direct threat to the health and wellbeing of all Americans,”

Patterns of incompetence and authoritarianism

What has Trump been up to instead of assisting in the coronavirus response? Corrupting government by replacing his Director of National Intelligence with an unqualified loyalist after firing the previous one for telling the truth about Russia’s interference in U.S. elections.

Trump’s pattern of hiding politically-inconvenient facts will only further hamper our nation’s response to global health issues like coronavirus. Withholding embarrassing information may prevent a stronger and more accurate response from local and state governments. Unfortunately, by ordering that Pence control all communications about the outbreak and response, Trump has ensured that this pattern will continue.

Any information that Pence does allow to reach the public is likely to be in doubt, anyway. The Trump administration’s repeated lies have eroded any trust the public once had in the federal government to tell the truth. By firing any officials who dare to contradict him (from Dan Coates to Joseph Maguire to James Mattis), Trump’s purges have not only left the administration with a dearth of expertise and experience, but also with a lack of credibility.

NOTE: This is not meant to panic anyone. It is simply meant to illustrate how dangerous Trump’s presidency has been, and how much more danger we’re in if he is re-elected for another term. Panic isn’t helpful. Wash your hands, cover your cough, and stay home if you’re sick. If you like data and aren’t prone to panic, here is the John Hopkins map Cucinelli was trying to access.