WASHINGTON — Many of the deaths and much of the economic damage from the Covid pandemic could have been prevented, particularly in the early months of the coronavirus’s spread, if the federal government had been better prepared after decades of warnings, the Department of Homeland Security National and Government Affairs of the Senate. the committee said in a report Thursday.
The 242-page report, written by Democrats on the panel, cited long-term weaknesses in the country’s public health infrastructure, from understaffing and inadequate disease surveillance to poor testing systems. Those factors, combined with the Trump administration’s failure to adequately stock up on personal protective equipment and provide accurate information to the public, were major contributors to preventable Covid deaths and economic damage, according to the report.
“The loss of life, damage to the health and livelihoods of countless Americans, and the suffering caused by the pandemic were not inevitable. We could have handled the situation very differently,” committee chairman Gary Peters, D-Mich., said on a call with reporters.
The findings were drawn in part from new interviews with Trump administration officials involved in the initial response, including Dr. Robert Redfield, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; former Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar; and Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the Trump White House Coronavirus Task Force.
But the report indicated that the shortcomings of the pandemic extended beyond the Trump administration.
“Despite repeated warnings, systemic inadequacies in public health surveillance systems, years of underfunding, overreliance on foreign supply chains, and growing shortages of public health and medical personnel—all contributed to what has become one of the worst public health responses in US history,” the report stated.
China withheld vital information in the early days of its initial outbreak; US officials, by contrast, had early warning signs and were slow to react, failing to quickly detect the spread of the virus in the US. The CDC missed at least half of the cases entering the country in January and February 2020.
The federal government publicly confirmed the country’s first case on January 21, 2020, but blood samples later showed that the virus had been circulating in the US a month earlier, according to the committee report.
In some cases, health departments were transcribing information by hand and faxing data, delaying the sharing of information about how the coronavirus was spreading. The CDC also struggled for months to develop an effective test to detect the virus, and the committee found conflicting internal reports about what went wrong.
In January and February, when the virus began to spread more widely, the only test available had to be done at CDC laboratories in Atlanta, which took days to return results. By the end of February, when tens of thousands of people in the US were most likely infected, the CDC had tested fewer than 1,200, according to the report.
The United States was also hampered by a lack of domestic medical manufacturing of items such as surgical masks, gowns and gloves, 80% of which were made abroad, and insufficient supplies on the federal reserve, the committee said.
Making matters worse, according to the committee, was the Trump administration’s decision in February 2020 to send 17.8 tons of personal protective equipment to China, after the Department of Health and Human Services determined that “there were no immediate acquaintances with medical supply chains. ”
The committee found that other parts of the federal government were issuing warnings at the time about the weakness of the medical supply chain and the lack of necessary supplies. The report cited a February 7, 2020 State Department memo that said a large maker of personal protective equipment could produce only 10% of its inventory of surgical gowns and hazardous materials due to shortages of fabric from China. Similarly, a DHS report said 96% of pharmacy owners and managers were already reporting shortages of surgical masks, according to the report.
The federal government was also slow to distribute its supplies from the national reserve and allocated items to states based on population rather than demonstrated need, according to the report. As a result, New Jersey received less than 5% of the N95 respirators it requested, while Wyoming received more than 1,000% more than it requested.
Early missteps inadequately protected health workers and exposed them to the virus, resulting in deaths in some cases.
Trump administration officials also failed to adequately communicate the risks to the public and limited CDC communications after the agency strongly warned the public on February 25, 2020 that the virus would severely affect their lives.
After that, the White House began requiring approval of all telebriefings, media requests and guidance documents, “causing long delays in critical health guidance and restricting the CDC’s ability to share information directly with the public” as “he was not allowed to hold public briefings,” the report says.
The country’s overall pandemic planning, combined with many of the structural flaws, is still insufficient to address future threats, the committee said. He issued a variety of recommendations, including increasing funding to improve public health surveillance, data systems, healthcare surge capacity, domestic manufacturing capabilities, and stockpiles of critical supplies.
Other recommendations included clarifying agency roles, improving interagency communication, changing the structure of the Department of Health and Human Services, revising the strategic reserve, and improving domestic manufacturing capabilities.
While some of the changes may be made by the White House and at the agency level, many will require additional funding from Congress, which has failed to pass funding legislation that addresses some of the concerns raised in the report.
“This is not the first public health crisis facing our nation, and sadly, it will not be the last,” Peters said.