Even if he won't admit it, President Donald Trump botched his initial response to the coronavirus outbreak that is now officially a pandemic. CNN counts 28 different ways Trump and senior members of his administration have misinformed the public, starting with his Feb. 10 assertion without evidence that "it dies with hotter weather" and "will go away in April" and his baseless Feb. 24 claim the situation "is very much under control."
Now businesses are sending workers home for weeks, college towns are unusually quiet and March Madness games will be played in empty arenas.
Whether or not it resulted from Trump's rhetoric, his administration was appallingly sluggish in its response. Even as cases began to appear in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control forbade hospital labs from devising their own COVID-19 tests, then put out a defective test of its own. A report Wednesday that the White House had ordered that federal deliberations on the coronavirus response be classified fails what former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. says he learned from the nation's handling of the 2008 financial crisis: "Transparency is essential."
This week, though, feels like a turning point – both in the recognition of the threat's seriousness and the breadth of the response. In an Oval Office address Wednesday night, the president suspended travel from Europe to the U.S. for 30 days while underscoring the seriousness of the disease and the fact that "smart action today will prevent the spread of the virus tomorrow."
While declaring a national emergency Friday, the president said he is considering restricting travel to Europe. There are also reassuring signs that local, state and federal authorities – and a long list of institutions – are responding proactively and appropriately. From K-12 school districts to college campuses coast to coast, classes are being canceled or moved online. Large sports and entertainment events are being delayed or canceled, and crowds are being banned from others – including the NCAA's unprecedented decision to cancel the NCAA basketball and wrestling championships and the entire spring season.
Air travel is being curtailed and gatherings are being discouraged or banned. Lazy, foolish depictions of COVID-19 as no more worrisome than seasonal flu are giving way to the recognition that it's 10 times as lethal, as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a House committee on Wednesday.
Fauci says the U.S. should act to more aggressively prevent the virus' spread, starting with doing more to prevent the arrival of infected people from other nations. Given that the number of known U.S. infections just topped 1,000 (with nearly 40 deaths) and that on Wednesday, the World Health Organization formally declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic – defined as the worldwide spread of a new disease – the U.S may still have to consider something as extreme as Italy's national quarantine.
The Mayo Clinic in Minnesota has started drive-through testing for COVID-19, as have clinics in Colorado, Connecticut and Washington. Best practices, concerted efforts and strategies like social distancing will eventually help slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, but it will keep taking a harsh toll on the economy. With a rash of bankruptcies possible, staving off economic disaster will be Trump's next huge task after the health scare fades.
The challenge after that one? Figuring out how to be better prepared for the inevitable next contagion.
– San Diego Union-Tribune