When Trump officials were first moving into the White House after his inauguration, they went through a simulated pandemic that eerily matched the real conditions of COVID-19, including a need for increasing hospital beds, overcoming a shortage of ventilators, and providing a consistent national message. Obviously, any lessons learned in that exercise didn’t stick.
And now it appears that wasn’t the only occasion. Because last October—just two months before the first cases of 2019 novel coronavirus appeared—the Department of Health and Human Services conducted a series of exercises about a hypothetical virus that: emerged from China; caused a fever and respiratory illness; was spread around the world by air travel; and generated a global pandemic. And the draft report from that simulation shows exactly what Americans are finding out the hard way—the Trump White House was dangerously unprepared.
As The New York Times reports, operation “Crimson Contagion” was actually a series of exercises intended to test every aspect of the government’s response to the outbreak of a novel disease. The “not to be disclosed” report showed the results of that test were nothing short of terrible. Without clear guidance, federal agencies sparred over their roles in fighting the disease. Without advance planning, hospitals and other facilities were short on materials and overrun with cases. Without any coordination from federal offices, states and localities were left on their own when it came to determining things like school closings and other restrictions. The whole thing was a fair description of chaos.
Which shows that the exercise was highly effective in predicting how Trump’s White House would react to real-world events, but an absolute failure when it comes to making agencies better prepared. And if it seems like something that happened in October might have been too late to generate the kind of lessons needed for a pandemic that began unfolding just weeks later, Crimson Contagion wasn’t the only such effort. In fact, there have been three such simulations since Trump moved into the White House.
Despite going through one of these tests every year, the latest such effort showed:
- Insufficient funds for responding to a pandemic.
- No clear way for states to take advantage of CDC or HHS resources.
- No agencies designated to lead various aspects of the crisis.
- No clarity on which officials were responsible for responding.
- No consistent rules across cities, states, local, tribal, and federal agencies.
- No planning for how state and federal agencies switch to working from home.
Overall, the report showed that agencies involved in the exercise provided “inconsistent and inaccurate response guidance and actions to healthcare and public health private sector partners.” And neither state nor federal officials involved were clear on what actions they should take or what information they should relay. It seemed very much like the kind of result that might have been expected from those officials coming in the door and hitting this scenario for the first time in 2017, but not what should have happened three years in.
The report also indicated there was confusion around the purpose of daily national reports, which is one problem the real world hasn’t shared … because those reports are all about praising Trump.
Maybe the most important results are those in which the real-world results were even worse than the test. The White House was slower to roll out testing, slower to insist on social distancing, slower to call for school closings. What the report said was the federal government needed to do more, and faster. What the Trump White House did when confronted with the real event was less, and slower.
But the chaos … they captured that part of the simulation perfectly.