Friday, July 10, 2020

COVID-19 Is Surging. Donald Trump’s Response Is Shrinking

Dr. Peter Hotez tuned into last Friday’s White House Coronavirus Briefing hoping he might learn something new. Hotez is the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor’s College of Medicine and one of the leading vaccine researchers in the world. He and a team of scientists are currently working to develop a coronavirus vaccine candidate, but that breakthrough could be months or years away. For now, Hotez wanted to know what federal leaders had planned to deal with the new spike in COVID-19 infections.

Sixty days had gone by since the American public had last heard from the White House Coronavirus Task Force. During that two-month lacuna, almost 70,000 of us died from COVID-19 and more than 1.5 million of us tested positive for the virus. Now, while the countries that were first hit by the virus — China, Italy, Spain — began to reopen their economies and send children back to school, the U.S. plateaued and then entered what appears to be a deadly new phase of the worst pandemic in a century.



But as Hotez listened to the briefing’s rotating cast of administration officials last Friday, he struggled to discern any cogent, consistent message about fighting the virus. What he heard instead, he says, was a mix of self-congratulation, stale science, and spin.

Dr. Peter Hotez tuned into last Friday’s White House Coronavirus Briefing hoping he might learn something new. Hotez is the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor’s College of Medicine and one of the leading vaccine researchers in the world. He and a team of scientists are currently working to develop a coronavirus vaccine candidate, but that breakthrough could be months or years away. For now, Hotez wanted to know what federal leaders had planned to deal with the new spike in COVID-19 infections.

Sixty days had gone by since the American public had last heard from the White House Coronavirus Task Force. During that two-month lacuna, almost 70,000 of us died from COVID-19 and more than 1.5 million of us tested positive for the virus. Now, while the countries that were first hit by the virus — China, Italy, Spain — began to reopen their economies and send children back to school, the U.S. plateaued and then entered what appears to be a deadly new phase of the worst pandemic in a century.



But as Hotez listened to the briefing’s rotating cast of administration officials last Friday, he struggled to discern any cogent, consistent message about fighting the virus. What he heard instead, he says, was a mix of self-congratulation, stale science, and spin.

Vice President Mike Pence said the country had “flattened the curve,” even though the trend line of new cases was aimed unmistakably upward. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar described the recent surge in cases as localized “hotspots,” even though the places experiencing the largest new outbreaks — Houston, Miami, Los Angeles, Phoenix — ranked among the top-ten largest metropolitan areas in the country. Pence cited the declining fatality rate as evidence of progress, even though the data is unequivocal that virus-related deaths can lag behind infections by several weeks.

What Hotez didn’t hear, he told me, was anything like a coherent national strategy for fighting COVID-19. There were ongoing efforts by FEMA and other federal agencies focused on procuring critical medical supplies and expanding testing capacity, as well as the administration’s breakneck push to develop a coronavirus vaccine. But top administration officials offered no discussion of which response measures might make the most impact and should therefore be prioritized, leaving Hotez with the impression that they were chipping around at the edges of the problem. “This is not easy for me to criticize them,” he says of senior officials in the administration. “But even after almost six months, they cannot articulate a cogent plan. I have never gotten a sense of what their plan is.”



Last week’s Task Force briefing was emblematic of a larger problem with the administration’s response to the pandemic. At a time when national leadership, consistent communication, and a well-defined strategy are needed more than ever, doctors, scientists, and public-health experts say the Trump administration is missing in action, content to play a supporting role and to let states and cities take the lead. All the while, President Trump spreads misinformation about testing (“If we did very little testing, we wouldn’t have the most cases”) and insists the pandemic will just “fade away.”

While it’s impossible from the outside to see everything underway inside the federal government, there are clear indications that the administration has scaled back its response even as the COVID-19 crisis worsens. After meeting daily for much of March and April, the Coronavirus Task Force now meets one to three times a week, according to a Task Force official. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top scientist on the Task Force, has seen his access to the president shrink. And a spokeswoman for FEMA tells Rolling Stone that there are 1,000 fewer employees currently assigned to support COVID-19 work than there were at the peak of the agency’s response.

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