He does something similar on the coronavirus pandemic. He picks out a few things that his administration did, however successfully — limiting travel from China, building ventilators — and claims that they demonstrate that he ticked every possible box. By extension, he argues that the United States could have done no better than the nearly 200,000 deaths we have seen.
“Could you have done more to stop it?” Trump was asked by ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos during a town hall even this week.
“I don’t think so,” Trump replied, riffing briefly on the travel restrictions. “I really don’t think so. I think we did a very good job.”
It is objectively the case that more could have been done to disrupt the spread of the coronavirus. There are a number of things that were under consideration or being developed within the administration but that never came to fruition. There were also missed opportunities and mistakes that could have been seized or avoided. As time goes on, we almost certainly will learn about more such examples, but even what we know now offers insight into how lives could have been saved.
Both the United States and South Korea detected their first coronavirus infections on the same day, Jan. 20, 2020. Within a week, South Korea had pulled together experts to develop a testing plan. A week later, a diagnostic test was confirmed. Within a month, the country was conducting 0.02 tests per thousand residents and a month after that, 10 times as many.
The United States, on the other hand, got off a much slower start. By the end of February, only 4,000 tests from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had been used, 0.01 tests per thousand — over the whole month. Post reporting indicates that the United States was slow to engage academics and experts in production and, more problematically, shipped flawed tests that ended up having to be scrapped.
South Korea was able to use its broad, sophisticated testing system to contain the virus. The United States wasn’t.
Over time, the United States scaled up its testing capacity, eventually surpassing the number of daily tests being conducted in South Korea. Of course, South Korea had much less need to test thousands of people a day; its success in containing the virus meant that there were fewer people who needed to be evaluated.
At one point in early spring, a task force led by Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner put together a proposal that would have instituted precisely the sort of broad, national testing program that Trump had repeatedly promised already existed.
“The plan called for the federal government to coordinate distribution of test kits, so they could be surged to heavily affected areas, and oversee a national contact-tracing infrastructure,” Vanity Fair’s Katherine Eban reported in July. “It also proposed lifting contract restrictions on where doctors and hospitals send tests, allowing any laboratory with capacity to test any sample. It proposed a massive scale-up of antibody testing to facilitate a return to work. It called for mandating that all COVID-19 test results from any kind of testing, taken anywhere, be reported to a national repository as well as to state and local health departments.”
The plan would also have established “‘a national Sentinel Surveillance System’ with ‘real-time intelligence capabilities to understand leading indicators where hot spots are arising and where the risks are high vs. where people can get back to work,'” Eban reported.
It was never rolled out as a proposal, in part, it seems, because Trump understood that more testing would lead to more confirmed cases — and more concern about the spread of the pandemic. Instead, Trump announced in late April a more limited effort aimed at supporting state efforts to test.
Trump did at one point announce a national testing plan leveraging the technological expertise of Google. The company, he and his coronavirus task force announced in mid-March, had created a tool that would evaluate user symptoms and connect them to a nearby testing site. But the announcement was premature to the point of inoperability: A sister company of Google’s had unveiled a pilot program in the San Francisco Bay area that was nowhere near the scale of what Trump announced.
At the same time, the White House failed to engage tech companies in an effort to trace the personal contacts of people infected with the virus. In early March, companies including Facebook and Amazon discussed how their tools could be used for contact-tracing. Apple and Google announced a tracing infrastructure in April. But the tools appear never to have been integrated into existing systems in any robust way, and the existing systems were often too patchwork to leverage them.
In April, the U.S. Postal Service prepared a remarkable announcement: Its nationwide delivery system would gear up to provide every household in the country a package of five reusable face masks. The effort would focus first on areas that were being slammed with new cases, including Louisiana and New York City.
It never happened. The program was never instantiated and the announcement never sent. As The Post reported this week, the White House scrapped the idea, instead taking 600 of the 650 million masks that were ordered and distributing them to “critical infrastructure sectors, companies, healthcare facilities, and faith-based and community organizations across the country.” Nearly a quarter of the masks were reserved for schools; it’s not clear if they have been distributed.
On the plus side, those masks were actually produced.
When the virus first emerged in the United States, the federal government was slow to focus on accumulating the sort of personal protective equipment (PPE) that would be necessary to ensure that Americans — and, specifically, medical professionals — could avoid infection. In January and February, even after the virus was known to be in the United States, the federal government was shipping protective equipment to China, where the virus first emerged.
Despite multiple administration officials calling for a massive investment in protective equipment in February and despite the federal government having the legal power to spur manufacturers to crank out masks, gowns and face shields, it didn’t happen. As the virus spread more and more broadly, health-care professionals in hard-hit areas were forced to use garbage bags for protection and to reuse masks day after day.
The group led by Kushner that had worked on the testing plan was similarly focused on obtaining protective equipment — with a similar outcome.
In a report released this week, Eban detailed a meeting in March between Kushner and executives from the private sector.
“One attendee explained to Kushner that due to the finite supply of PPE,” Eban reports, “Americans were bidding against each other and driving prices up. To solve that, businesses eager to help were looking to the federal government for leadership and direction.”
“’Free markets will solve this,’ Kushner said dismissively. ‘That is not the role of government,’” Eban wrote.
Kushner’s effort sat outside the official government structure for addressing the pandemic and, as The Post reported in May, was heavily influenced by the participants’ personal relationships.
“Supply-chain volunteers were instructed to fast-track protective equipment leads from ‘VIPs,’ including conservative journalists friendly to the White House, according to the complaint and one senior administration official,” The Post’s Yasmeen Abutaleb and Ashley Parker reported. That included things like a call from Fox News host Jeanine Pirro for a hospital in New York to be prioritized for the receipt of a bulk order of masks.
There’s another way in which the pandemic could have been handled differently, one that derives entirely from Trump himself.
Had the president not downplayed the risk and insisted it would simply go away, had he not pushed mask-wearing into the realm of partisan politics, had he not abandoned his support for containing the virus at the state level, had he not promoted unproven cure-alls — any of these changes would have made it easier for Americans to embrace the short-term difficulties necessary to contain the virus enough to change the trajectory of the pandemic.
Trump chose — and continues to choose — not to do so.