As the United States continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of Americans working essential jobs put their lives on the line every time they go to work. In particular, hospital and health care workers across the country have risked their lives daily, working to treat patients fighting the coronavirus without the critical masks and personal protective equipment they need. In a recent interview on “60 Minutes,” one medical worker from a New York City hospital described the scene inside the hospitals as “Hell on Earth.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic now claiming more than 30,000 lives across the nation — including a high but unknown number of health care workers who have succumbed to the virus — the coronavirus has set off a calamitous chain of events for our nation. Many Americans have questioned what the federal government has done over the years to prepare for the kind of event we find ourselves in today, along with the resulting medical and economic implications.

While our nation continues to grapple with the effects of the pandemic, it’s clear that our government wasn’t prepared to fight a highly contagious respiratory disease like the coronavirus. If the proper steps had been taken — and our stockpile of N95 masks, personal protective equipment and ventilators had been maintained — our hospitals and health care workers wouldn’t be so overwhelmed right now. As one nurse said in the same 60 Minutes interview, “Every health care worker infection, every health care worker death is preventable.”

In response to the federal government’s clear lack of preparedness, the Trump administration, which currently oversees the nation’s response to COVID-19, has gotten the brunt of the blame. The New York Times wrote a recent article detailing what so many Americans believe to be countless missteps by the current occupant of the Oval Office.

It is true that President Donald Trump has had a lot to do with our country’s response to the coronavirus crisis. While many critics claim he should have taken action sooner, Trump has done the best job possible with the tools he was given by his predecessors and the data available at that time. The president has taken a number of common-sense steps that have protected millions of Americans from contracting COVID-19, as I detailed in my last column. 

The truth is that in order to really look at our nation’s response to COVID-19, we have to look back in time. Long before Trump was elected president, history shows that our government had the chance to prepare for a pandemic like the coronavirus a decade ago, after the worst of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the H1N1 influenza virus was first detected in the U.S. in the spring of 2009. By April 2010, the CDC estimates that over 60 million people within our borders were infected while 12,000 people died. While the situation caused by H1N1 cannot be compared to the national shutdown we are currently experiencing today, this virus was considered a pandemic nonetheless.

In the midst of the spread of H1N1, which hit younger people who didn’t have the antibodies to fight off this flu strain harder, the federal government turned to its stockpile of critical medical supplies and equipment that is typically only used in extreme situations (like a pandemic). According to a study in the journal of Health Security, “75 percent of N95 respirators and 25 percent of face masks contained in the CDC’s Strategic National Stockpile (100 million products) were deployed for use in health care settings over the course of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic response.” Despite calls from medical experts to build up the national stockpile in order to prepare for the next pandemic, President Barack Obama’s administration failed to do so, according to a USA Today Fact Check in response to a Daily Wire article published in March.

The truth is that Barack Obama was president during a medical event similar to COVID-19. His administration knew the risks of failing to rebuild the national stockpile of masks and other equipment, but failed to actually replenish that critical stockpile. While this inaction is not solely to blame for the fallout from the coronavirus, it undoubtedly has contributed immensely to the calamity we are living through today. Sadly, our depleted stockpile, paired with this highly contagious respiratory disease, has created the perfect storm, a storm that was somewhat preventable.

Ultimately, our society has had enough warnings. We lived through the H1N1 pandemic and continue to confront the COVID-19 pandemic today. Meanwhile, we remember other health crises that threatened millions across the world in the past, including SARS, MERS and Ebola. There will be another pandemic, sooner than later, that makes its way into our country. Before that happens, we owe it to ourselves and future generations to invest in medical supplies and prepare ourselves, so we don’t have to watch thousands die and millions risk their lives at the expense of our inaction.

Once COVID-19 subsides, we must begin conversations immediately about how we will begin to rebuild our national stockpile of emergency medical supplies, because we cannot make the same mistake twice. We have an obligation to learn from our inaction after H1N1 and prevent something like the current pandemic from ever happening again.

Evan Stern can be reached at erstern@umich.edu.

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