In 2019, the Trump administration held a series of training simulations on a hypothetical pandemic caused by a virus that predicted, with remarkable accuracy, many of the problems and shortfalls currently plaguing the US’ response to the novel coronavirus outbreak.
The New York Times reported in an in-depth Thursday feature on the administration’s pandemic preparedness is that the war-game style training exercise, which was led by the Department of Health and Human Services and included multiple federal agencies, 12 states, and private stakeholders, simulated a scenario where a respiratory virus dubbed “The Crimson Contagion” rapidly spread through the US.
The so-called Crimson Contagion almost exactly paralleled the novel coronavirus in several respects. It was first identified in China, was characterized by symptoms including fever, and was brought to the US by people who traveled by air. In all, 7.7 million were hospitalized and over half a million Americans died from the Crimson Contagion.
A draft report from the exercises obtained and published by The Times sounded the alarm about several of the issues currently arising in the federal government’s messaging and strategy to tackle the novel coronavirus.
The 60-page report noted that the US’s response to the hypothetical virus was hampered by a lack of clarity of the chain of command structure and responsibilities between federal agencies, chronic shortages of crucial healthcare equipment and resources, and a lack of coordination between federal, states, and local governments.
“Currently, there are insufficient funding sources designated for the federal government to use in response to a severe influenza pandemic,” the report found.
The report of the simulation recounted that “exercise participants lacked clarity on federal interagency partners’ roles and responsibilities during an influenza pandemic response,” with “HHS’ Operating Divisions and Staff Divisions provided inconsistent and inaccurate response guidance and actions to healthcare and public health private sector partners.”
The simulation documented some of the exact same scenarios appearing now, including delays and inconsistencies at the state and local levels over school closures, and mandates that most people work from home and practice social distancing, and systemic problems in manufacturing more medical supplies.
The report concluded that given the past history of respiratory viruses like SARS originating in China, HHS believed that federal government stakeholders at all levels should be prepared for a similar pandemic.
As the coronavirus quickly spread across the world from China to Europe and then the United States, Trump himself and other administration figures have publicly given contradictory information about the severity of the virus itself, the availability of coronavirus testing, and the supply of crucial equipment.
In addition to the lack of testing, hospitals and healthcare providers are contending with a major shortage of essential supplies from ICU beds, ventilators, and personal protective equipment like masks and suits for healthcare workers.
President Donald Trump departs after a press briefing with the coronavirus task force, at the White House, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Washington, with Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Seema Verma and Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
In a Thursday press briefing led by the president and members of his coronavirus task force, Trump maintained that the administration was prepared all along, and blamed both China for the virus’ spread in the first place and the US news media for hampering the government response.
“We were very prepared. The only thing we weren’t prepared for was the media. The media has not treated it fairly,” Trump said in response to a question about why the US wasn’t more prepared to quickly test more patients and coordinate a more cohesive response.
But in addition to the 2019 report, the Times documented numerous warnings and lessons from the US’ response to the 2014 Ebola crisis under the Obama administration about the overall lack of federal government preparedness.
One report prepared by national security official Christopher Kirchhoff in the aftermath of Ebola warned of many of the same problems arising today with the COVID: The US overestimated the capacity of the World Health Organization alone to tackle the crisis, and the US lacked sufficient supply of protective equipment for healthcare workers and clear guidance on international travel restrictions.
Not only did the Obama administration produce multiple, in-depth reports about how the lessons from Ebola should inform future pandemic preparedness, but officials from both administrations participated in a specific pandemic training in January 2017 during the transition between the Obama and Trump administrations.
While both administrations largely did not execute many of the recommended changes to prepare for pandemics after Ebola, the Obama administration did create the National Security Council’s global health unit to oversee much of the White House response to pandemics.
But in 2018, the Trump administration shuttered the NSC health unit and consolidated it into a separate department under the leadership of National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has since defended the decision, recently tweeting: “The Trump Admin did not ‘gut’ or even weaken US biosecurity. Reorganizing the NSC was an effort that spanned two administrations and preserved/strengthened our ability to respond to threats.”