In the past two months, novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has caused an outbreak of mild to severe respiratory disease in over 144 locations worldwide, including the United States. On Jan. 30, coronavirus was declared a public health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO). Since then, the virus has reached pandemic proportions with over 125,000 reported cases and 4,600 deaths.
It is impossible to be completely prepared for public health emergencies like this. Admitting to this, though, is the first step to executing a quick and effective response. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has focused on developing and distributing test kits, providing epidemic response guidance and monitoring the virus. It has emphasized the importance of the federal government’s key role as a communicator between state and local partners, public health institutions and health departments. In response to the coronavirus, the U.S. administration has instead provided potentially misleading information that contradicts many public health institutions and experts.
President Donald Trump’s constant downplay of the pandemic has failed to reassure Americans (and raises criticism for his public communication of the crisis). During an interview with Fox News, Trump said, “Now, this is just my hunch, but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people … personally, I would say, the number (death rate) is way under 1 percent.” In contrast, WHO estimates a death rate of 3.4 percent based on the number of deaths and people who have been tested. Public health experts have noted that due to a lack of information about the virus, incomplete testing and reporting the crude death rate remains unknown. Trump’s history of distrust in scientific evidence and subsequent condemnation of the media questions the credibility of his “hunch.”
Last week, Trump put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the U.S.’s response to the coronavirus. Pence announced that any American could get tested for coronavirus with health insurance coverage. He stated there would be 2,500 test kits available with the capacity to test one million individuals and an additional one million tests would be manufactured in the coming week. In reality, only certain public health labs have the resources to accommodate the initial testing demand after delays in test manufacturing. These labs have administered fewer than 100 tests a day, amounting to significantly less than the one million predicted. With the rapid increase in virus cases, especially in densely populated states like California and New York, testing demand has heightened. Public health labs all around the country not only lack the resources but also the capacity to conduct testing.
In addition, in early February, Trump eliminated the global health unit of the National Security Council and instead proposed various programs and budget cuts because he believed the unit was not necessary. Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, commented on this by saying, “You build a fire department ahead of time. You don’t wait for a fire. There is an underappreciation for the amount of time and resources required to build a prepared system.” It is, in fact, almost impossible to reassemble an institutional unit such as this during an ongoing crisis. The result: The U.S. is not prepared for this pandemic.
Pence’s empty promises of preparedness and the misrepresentation of the U.S.’s response capabilities reflects a lack of experience in responding to public health emergencies and his poor public health record as former Indiana governor. Pence’s role in this response is more akin to “a political damage control” for Trump than a public health emergency response. The administration’s poor communication both among health institutions and to the public has resulted in the hindrance of U.S. response efforts.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading infectious disease public health expert who led U.S. response to SARS, HIV, MERS and other outbreaks, has been correcting Trump’s recent assessment of the crisis. He believes that “… the public needs solid, understandable medical information, especially during crises.” When responding to an emergency such as this, federal governments need to be: “… encouraging calm, providing key information and leading an assertive response.”
While Trump has stressed that Americans should “remain calm,” his communication and response to this crisis have not provided any reassurance to the public. In fact, the administration’s lack of transparency in terms of making informed decisions and communicating to the public has impeded our response to this crisis. Public health experts like Fauci should be the spokespeople during epidemics. They understand that what needs to happen is a public health response, not a political cleanup effort. What’s important to Americans, like you and me, is faith in our administration in their ability to promise and deliver. It is a necessity that our representatives must have, especially during times of crisis.
Jenny Gurung can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.