The world is at the tipping point for a COVID-19 pandemic, but as Mark Sumner writes, "Avoiding disaster still seems possible." That depends, though, on the U.S. responding effectively, and with impeached president Donald Trump at the helm, the chances of that happening feel frighteningly slim.
Let's start back in April 2018 when then-national security advisor pressured Tom Bossert, who was in charge of the Department of Homeland Security's global health efforts, to resign along with his whole team. Then a month later, the White House forced out Bossert's counterpart at the national security council, Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, and eliminated his entire team which was responsible for leading the U.S. response to deadly pandemics. There is no senior administration official now solely responsible for global health security, coordinating and directing the various departments among the agencies responsible for public health and epidemic response. That's barely the beginning of this administration's failures, though.
Even before that, the Centers for Disease Control was forced to cut 80% of its efforts at preventing global disease outbreaks because its funding had been so severely reduced. The cuts to staff were so drastic that the number of countries the CDC was working in reduced from 49 to just 10. The cuts to the CDC and other health programs would continue in the latest Trump budget: a 10% cut to Health and Human Services; another 16% cut to the CDC; cuts to the World Health Organization of 53% and to the Pan American Health Organization of 75%; and $3 billion from global health programs among agencies.
What the cuts that have already been made to CDC mean is that it is hampered in screening for coronavirus. Right now, there's a problem with the CDC's test for the virus, so only three of the more than 100 public health labs around the country have verified the CDC's test for use. Right now, the test is also very expensive at $250 a pop and the HHS doesn't have the funds readily available to cover that as well as the rest of the response to the outbreak. The administration is planning to request emergency funds from Congress, but it could be as little as $1 billion. That's not going to go very far when just one screening test costs $250. In comparison, the Obama White House requested $6 billion to fight the 2014 Ebola outbreak, receiving $5.4 billion from Congress.
Add on top of that simple and gross mismanagement by the administration, when the State Department was allowed to overrule the CDC and allow 14 passengers from the Diamond Princess who were infected but without symptoms to fly home to the U.S. with uninfected passengers. Even with that happening a week ago, it was clear that asymptomatic people could transmit the virus.
In the face of a government that seems woefully ill-prepared to deal with a global pandemic spreading across the U.S., what do you do? As Mark wrote, get your flu shot and wash your hands. And work like hell to get a Democrat into the White House and to take back the Senate, because we need a government that's prepared to handle the next pandemic.