Team Trump's coronavirus response blasted as 'doomed from the start'

The White House had a plan intended to keep the coronavirus from reaching American soil. It's increasingly clear this was the wrong plan.
Image: Donald Trump, Alex Azar
Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar looks on as President Donald Trump shows a spending bill to combat the Coronavirus, at the White House on March 6, 2020.Evan Vucci / AP
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By Steve Benen

At the White House this morning, Donald Trump offered a relative succinct summary of his administration's response to the coronavirus. "This came unexpectedly a number of months ago," the president said. "I heard about it in China, it came out of China. I heard about it. And we made a good move. We closed it down."

At least, that was the idea. The White House imposed relatively uncontroversial travel restrictions with the intention of keeping the virus outbreak from reaching American soil.

Time magazine published a rather brutal report making clear that this was the wrong plan.

Since January, epidemiologists, former U.S. public health officials and experts have been warning, publicly and privately, that the administration's insistence that containment was -- and should remain -- the primary way to confront an emerging infectious disease was a grave mistake. In congressional testimony, in medical webcasts and in private discussions with health officials, they warned that the unique features of this flu-like virus made it impossible to control, and that the administration must use any time that containment measures might buy to prepare the country for an inevitable outbreak.

The White House did not heed those warnings, and as Time's report added, the administration "was slow to catch up."

There were not enough COVID-19 testing kits, hotlines were overwhelmed, and hospitals and public health departments were hobbled by a lack of reliable statistics on the spread of the disease. Experts say the U.S. response is now likely weeks -- if not months -- behind schedule.

"The containment strategy was doomed from the start," said Jeremy Konyndyk, who directed USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance during the Ebola outbreak and is a member of the World Health Organization committee overseeing health emergencies.

William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard's Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, added in a new Washington Post op-ed, "The battle to keep covid-19 from becoming established in the United States is probably over without a single shot being fired. We were not outwitted, outpaced or outflanked. We knew what was coming. We just twiddled our thumbs as the coronavirus waltzed in."

All of this, of course, came on the heels of the Trump administration's decision to disband the National Security Council's global health security team, which existed to address global pandemics, among other early missteps.

I don't doubt that the president will argue in the coming months that the coronavirus is not his fault. What Trump's argument will look past, however, is the fact he is responsible for the nation's response to the coronavirus outbreak.