How Did Things Get So Bad?

(L-R), President Donald Trump, Tennessee Governor BIll Lee, and Nashville Mayor John Cooper

This is the second part in a series tracking how the nation, the state, and Nashville responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — Why has the richest country in the world responded to the pandemic no better than, say, Paraguay? Here are five reasons:

Testing: The federal response to produce accurate tests was bungled, and precious time was lost before private labs were authorized to develop their own COVID tests. 

China published the genome of the virus in early January.

The World Health Organization (WHO) shipped 250,00 tests to 70 labs around the world in early February.

(L-R), Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr.Robert Redfield, and Dr. Alex Jahangir. Policy is set by politicians and medical officials issue health directives. The two people most responsible for the catastrophic failure to control the virus in the U.S, are the Commander in Chief and his Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Robert Redfield.

Under pressure from the White House, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) developed an “American” test of its own. On February 4, the CDC shipped 160,000 tests to state labs, including Tennessee, but only about 200 tests were used. They were unreliable or perhaps contaminated. We still don’t know.

At this critical time, the U.S. did not ask for help. Instead the CDC took three weeks to fix its tests, announcing new protocols on February 28. 

By that time a German lab had shipped 1.4 million COVID tests to WHO.

“There are 10 companies in the U.S. who could have developed the tests for them,” Olfert Landt said. He and his wife run the small German company that supplied WHO with tests. 

Landt told the Washington Post that the coronavirus pandemic was too big and moving too fast for the CDC to develop its own tests in time and that the U.S. was taking the wrong approach. 

Bureaucratic snarls between the FDA and CDC delayed approval for private labs to develop their own tests. Roche Diagnostics shipped its first batch of 400,000 tests on March 16, six weeks after WHO did. 

Contagion: COVID-19 is a very fast-moving disease. It is spread through the air as well as from surfaces contaminated by the virus. During January the CDC found 11 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among 210 patients who were symptomatic. 

On February 25, the CDC announced 53 cases of the disease in the U.S.  By March 16, a total of 4,226 COVID-19 cases in the United States had been reported to CDC and 500 new cases were being reported every day. 

By mid-March, testing had not even begun in the U.S. because tests were still not widely available and the disease was already out of control. By April 7, the U.S. death toll rose higher than any other country. 

Latest figures from John Hopkins COVID-Tracker show the U.S. has 3,278,946 confirmed cases and 135, 029 deaths. In Tennessee 738 people have died. 

Not enough Masks: The national strategic stockpile of medical supplies like ventilators was depleted, especially masks, gloves, and gowns, known as personal protective equipment (PPE). States have their own strategic stockpiles of supplies. They were also insufficient to meet the need. 

Public health has not been a priority for the Trump administration. To be fair, public health budgets have suffered for years even before Trump. Between 2009 and 2015, for example, public health funding in the U.S. fell by $40 billion.

The country that developed the Salk vaccine to eradicate polio in the world, can no longer claim that high ground. We can’t even keep our own citizens safe from COVID-19. 

Poor Leadership: President Trump did not call for a national response to fight the virus as other countries like South Korea and Germany successfully did. COVID-19 spread throughout the U.S. like wildfire for six crucial weeks and that doomed containment efforts at the state and local level, especially after Trump pressured states to re-open their economies by Easter.  

Governor Bill Lee was not as pliant as other “red” governors in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Arizona, and Texas who re-opened against common sense but reopen he did on May 1. Mayor John Cooper started a 4-phase reopening May 11. 

Lee deserves credit for early free testing. Lee is unique among Southern governors because he has been acting on science and conscience. The New York Times reported Lee’s missionary work in foreign countries informed his decision to ramp up testing and make it free in mid-April. Nashville followed a week later. 

Tennessee is experiencing a resurgence of the pandemic that has erased the progress made in the last three months. We are pretty much back to square one.  

Politicizing Public Health: Just as a robust economy is what Trump hopes to salvage to put him in the White House for another four years, business and profit drove the decision to relax Stay-at Home orders in Tennessee and get people back to work. It was too soon. The virus has come roaring back.

“It doesn’t serve any purpose to let politics sway what we say and the decisions we take and I have a fear that is part of our challenge up to this point,” said Dr. James Hildreth in April. He is President and CEO of Meharry Medical College.

State and local officials have not thought for themselves. They have slavishly followed Trump and directives handed down by the CDC since the very beginning of the outbreak. They know Washington failed to come up with a national plan to fight the disease and they know that failure has cost American lives. None have had the courage to say so. 

There are some notable exceptions. At the national level Dr. Anthony  Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has stood next to Trump at many press briefings and corrected his misstatements on a number of occasions.

At the local level, Dr. Alex Jahangir, who heads the Nashville Coronavirus Task Force, publicly criticized the decision to open up the economy. He told the New York Times last week he was tired of being politically correct. “There’s not national leadership, and there’s a lot of pressure to open up the economy,” Jahangir said.

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