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GAO report slams Trump administration response to the coronavirus pandemic

President Donald Trump salutes Marine One from a White House balcony in early October after being hospitalized with covid-19.
President Donald Trump salutes Marine One from a White House balcony in early October after being hospitalized with covid-19. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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A government watchdog study from a generally staid audit agency amounts to a wide-reaching condemnation of President Donald Trump’s botched response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The 346-page Government Accountability Office document, much longer than most, outlines broad Trump administration failures so alarming that the normally circumspect auditors pronounced themselves “deeply troubled.” That constitutes an anguished cry from an office that prides itself on just-the-facts, albeit dull, reports.

Almost 90 percent — 27 of 31 — of the GAO’s recommendations from June, September and November “remained unimplemented” as of Jan. 15, less than a week before Trump left office. The document was released last week.

“GAO remains deeply troubled that agencies have not acted on recommendations to more fully address critical gaps in the medical supply chain,” it said.

The medical supply chain covers a large range of actions and materials related to the pandemic, including coronavirus testing, vaccines, therapeutics and personal protective equipment. Even dollars have supply chain issues.

The report focused largely on the Department of Health and Human Services, which leads the government’s response. But the GAO’s comprehensive review included covid program integrity issues involving overpayments worth $1.1 billion in the Labor Department’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program and 3,000 Small Business Administration loans to potentially ineligible companies.

The supply chain of money also has knots. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act provided $300 million to the Commerce Department in March for assistance to the fishery industry, which has taken a financial hit because the pandemic closed restaurants. As of Dec. 4, only $53.9 million — about 18 percent — had been disbursed, which is “inconsistent with Office of Management and Budget guidance on the importance of agencies distributing CARES Act funds in an expedient manner,” according to the GAO.

After the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed success in promoting rapid development of coronavirus vaccines — the one bright spot in its covid response — it failed to fully follow the GAO’s implementation recommendations. Now we suffer a rocky inoculation rollout, with jammed websites, clogged phone lines and canceled appointments.

“In September 2020, GAO stressed the importance of having a plan that focused on coordination and communication and recommended that HHS, with the support of the Defense Department, establish a time frame for documenting and sharing a national plan for distributing and administering COVID-19 vaccine, and among other things, outline an approach for how efforts would be coordinated across federal agencies and nonfederal entities,” the GAO said. “To date, this recommendation has not been fully implemented. GAO reiterates the importance of doing so.”

Trump’s HHS did not agree or disagree with the GAO’s recommendation.

The report details a bungled Trump administration response to a virus that has killed over 455,000 Americans, far more than in any other nation. Former HHS Secretary Alex Azar and a spokesperson for Trump did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did current HHS officials.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) did. He chairs the government operations subcommittee of the House Oversight Committee, which was one of the congressional panels that received the GAO report. “This independent report is a stunning indictment of the Trump administration’s total failure to respond to the coronavirus pandemic,” Connolly said. “Their inaction resulted in lives lost.”

When asked about the GAO report, the White House pointed to the national covid-19 strategy that President Biden released on his second day in office. Among other things, it outlines plans for national testing, supply chain strengthening and vaccine distribution and inoculation.

Regarding troubles with the government’s response to covid under Trump, the GAO said:

●HHS “has not issued a comprehensive and publicly available national testing strategy.”

●HHS has not developed a supply chain strategy with states and the private sector for providing supplies during a pandemic.

●The federal government cannot “systematically define and ensure the collection of standardized data across the relevant federal agencies . . . to help respond to COVID-19, communicate the status of the pandemic with citizens, or prepare for future pandemics. As a result, COVID-19 information that is collected and reported by states and other entities to the federal government is often incomplete and inconsistent.”

HHS did agree to take steps toward a national coronavirus testing strategy, the GAO reported, but department officials “expressed concern that producing such a strategy . . . could be overly burdensome” on federal, state and local officials “and that a plan would be outdated by the time it was finalized.” The GAO rejected those excuses.

The GAO’s conclusions are not faultfinding after the fact. In February 2020, before things got bad, “we emphasized the need for federal agencies to coordinate, establish, and define roles and responsibilities among those responding to the crisis, and provide clear, consistent communication,” the report said.

The bottom line of the report is that “urgent action is needed and required” to fight covid-19, A. Nicole Clowers, the GAO’s managing director for health care, said by phone. “We’ve been examining these issues for almost nine months now, and we’ve seen the lack of progress that’s been made.”

She acknowledged the report contains “strong language for GAO,” adding: “We’re trying to spur that action that we believe is needed.”

That’s up to Biden, whose serious approach to covid-19 is a sharp contrast to Trump’s.

“The Biden administration is now forced to simultaneously clean up Trump’s mess it inherited,” Connolly said, “while also responding to the greatest public health pandemic in a hundred years.”

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