So what are the steps the government can take, and why are there bipartisan concerns that the Trump administration is ill-prepared to protect us? Let’s walk through this.
What the government should do, in three steps, according to health officials
Step 1: Figure out who is infected and where they are. We don’t have a complete picture right now, but developing a quick test that can be performed at the doctor’s office for anyone who comes in sick should be the top priority for health officials, said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University who specializes in pandemics. From there, every other decision will flow.
“If it’s not that severe, maybe we don’t need major disruption” in our society, Nuzzo said. “If it were highly deadly, we might be more tolerant of those disruptions.”
She said the United States is behind on this, hardly testing anyone yet. That means we don’t know where the virus is and where it may be lurking or spreading. Should schools be closed over this? Churches advised not to congregate? It’s hard to tell, because we don’t know much about the virus.
“This thing is landing on our shores, we haven’t seen it fully,” said J. Stephen Morrison, a public health expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We know it’s really fast, and we don’t know exactly how severe and dangerous it is.”
Trump didn’t give much clarity on this Wednesday when asked, saying “We’re testing everybody that we need to test, and we’re finding very little problem.”
Step 2: Get health-care workers safe and ready to deal with the virus. That means masks, yes, but also medicine (which comes from China, where production has been slowed) and having the government ready with stockpiles of extra medical equipment should hospitals get bombarded.
At the same time, health experts say we need to push forward on vaccines and treatment research, which requires money and a concerted government effort. The Trump administration said Wednesday they are working on a vaccine which would probably be ready the next cold and flu season, should coronavirus be a part of that.
Step 3: Communicate with the public. Right now, relatively simple stuff: “Telling people to wash their hands and get the flu shot so they don’t come in with the flu thinking it’s coronavirus,” Nuzzo said.
Trump did say as much Wednesday: “You want to wash your hands a lot. You want to stay if you’re not feeling well, if you feel you have a flu, stay inside, sort of quarantine yourself. Don’t go outside.”
But if this gets worse and later people are asked to work from home or avoid congregating in large groups, that’s a whole other level of communication that the government will need to take on.
Although the other steps of preparedness can be solved with enough money and organization, this step is potentially the hardest to execute, because it requires trust from people that their government knows the facts and has their best interest in mind. That’s a currency that has to be earned before it’s spent.
Which brings us to the criticisms the Trump administration has faced about its preparedness.
The obstacles — especially for this virus and this administration
For any health crisis anywhere in the world, there are chronic problems with how health officials address it, Morrison said — mainly, that governments tend to do too little, too late.
“We swing back and forth between crises and neglect, and we over-respond late, scramble around with our hair on fire, spend lots of money in very wasteful ways. And when the threat subsides, we lapse back into inadequate sustained preparation,” he said.
And then there are problems specific to this virus and this administration.
The big one is that in 2018, well before the new coronavirus was a thing, the White House got rid of its top official leading the government response to a global pandemic and essentially folded up his office, reported The Post’s Lena H. Sun at the time. This year, the White House proposed a budget that cuts money from the very health agencies that will be dealing with the coronavirus crisis the most.
That means that as coronavirus spread across the globe and to the U.S., there was no default point person to coordinate between the half-dozen or so agencies involved in public health and emergency decisions — like whether to bring back U.S. passengers on an infected cruise ship.
That health officials were warning lawmakers of a serious outbreak in a closed-door briefing around the same time Tuesday as when a top homeland security official struggled to answer basic questions about the coronavirus in a public hearing is probably a reflection of that lack of coordination.
On Wednesday, Trump said Vice President Pence would be leading the response to the virus, but it’s not yet clear what all that will entail.
The other big challenge for Trump is how to communicate with the public. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in November found that just 31 percent of Americans say he is honest and trustworthy. “When you have a White House that just spews falsehoods across all sorts of different topic areas,” Morrison said, “it’s hardly surprising people are asking these questions around: ‘What’s our strategy, and what are we communicating to the American public?’”
What Trump specifically needs to do, according to the experts
Not what he’s been doing. Trump spent a significant portion of Wednesday’s news conference talking about his rising poll numbers after impeachment, attacking his political opponents and downplaying the coronavirus threat in a way that seemed geared toward helping his reelection. For example, he tried very hard not to acknowledge there are 60 cases (and growing) of coronavirus in the U.S.
He has also accused the media of stoking fears and causing the stock market to decline before the virus becomes a major health crisis in the United States. But even conservatives normally in his camp are sounding the alarm.
“Right now, as of tonight, America is not ready for this or for any major epidemic,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson said on his show Tuesday.
To deal with something as serious and life-threatening as a global virus, health officials say the White House needs to stay factual and apolitical. We haven’t seen much of that from the president so far.