WASHINGTON (CN) — Six months into the Covid-19 pandemic and with three times the number of Americans dead from the novel respiratory virus than were killed in the Vietnam War, House Democrats slammed the Trump administration on Thursday for the lack of a cohesive 50-state strategy to end the crisis and repair a hemorrhaging economy.
Five congressional committees delivered the 6-page assessment this morning jointly with the Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis, a unique oversight body that is modeled after the 1941 task force created by President Harry Truman to account for any waste, fraud and abuse that occurred in World War II military spending.
Like those of a war, the ripple effects of the pandemic have infiltrated every aspect of American life. Over 31 million Americans are out of work and officials like Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell have predicted that, so long as the virus goes uncontained, economic recovery will remain sluggish.
Representative Jim Clyburn, the select committee chairman, told reporters Thursday that this crisis has been exacerbated by the monthslong pattern of “denial, distortion and delay” by the president and some members of his administration.
Whether it has been communicating to the public the inherent danger of a little-understood virus in the initial days of the outbreak or truthfully addressing personal protective equipment and test-kit shortages still plaguing cities and states today, the messaging and ultimately the strategy from the White House since March has been piecemeal and as a result catastrophic, the report finds.
Democrats were quick to push back against the expected criticism of their assessments, that they are inflating the issue as a political weapon.
Underlining their findings, Clyburn pointed to the committee’s findings that the lack of proper gear to treat infected patients was a recurring factor for the 100,000 health care workers who contracted the virus, as the White House dawdled on enforcing the Defense Production Act to ramp up supplies.
The proof too is in the sworn testimony of frontline workers like Eric Colts, a Detroit bus driver who came to Congress in May. Like many others working at grocery stores or on public transit, Colts pleaded for a uniform national strategy, asking lawmakers to encourage national mask-wearing and social distancing in the workplace so that others would not meet the same fate as his friend Jason Hargrove.
A fellow bus driver, Hargrove died of Covid-19 in April just 11 days after a woman openly coughed on his bus. To keep the bus safe for himself and his passengers, Hargrove was left to bring his own supplies, his widow, Desha Johnson-Hargrove, recalled to Time.
The president never issued a national mask mandate and has indicated he will not, preferring instead to let states decide enforcement on their own despite case rates and deaths ticking up unevenly across the U.S. in the last six months.
It was not until July 21 and the death toll had already reached 140,000 that Trump finally appeared at a White House coronavirus task force briefing and called for greater mask-wearing.
Notably, however, his statement was not unequivocal.
“In theory you don’t need the mask. I’m used to the mask. The reason is, think about patriotism. Maybe it helps. It helps. We have experts that have said in the recent past that masks aren’t exactly good to wear, you know that. But now they’ve changed their mind,” Trump said last month.
That message came during the first briefing the president gave on the pandemic in 85 days, having suspended them after confounding health authorities by waxing on the merits of ingesting bleach as means to fight the virus.
In the early days of the pandemic, White House coronavirus task force members like Dr. Anthony Fauci and administration officials like Dr. Robert Redfield, director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, did not recommend blanketed mask-wearing nor did the World Health Organization.
It would be weeks until those positions changed publicly and recommendations urged more forcefully. Transparency by Fauci, the report notes, led to the White House retaliating against and sidelining its own experts.
Trump had for weeks at that point pushed for an Easter “reopening” of the economy, but when the guidelines were finally published they were widely panned as inadequate and unrealistic by public health experts.
Thursday’s report comes as the latest projections from the CDC estimate another 18,000 Americans will die in the next two and a half weeks, and that the death toll will average about 1,000 per day.
“Rather than listen to the experts, the president appears to be in deep denial. He said this week, ‘right now I think it’s under control and we’ve done a great job,’” Representative Frank Pallone said, quoting Trump’s remarks at a White House press briefing.
Early last month, Pallone’s home state of New Jersey was second in Covid-19 deaths only to New York, where the virus ravaged the state for weeks.
“Yesterday,” Pallone said, “in explaining why he believes schools should reopen in person, [Trump] said this thing is ‘going away. It will go away. Things go away.’ These statements are not just wrong, they are dangerous.”
A study published last week in JAMA Pediatrics found children under 5 carry just as many of the virus cells in their noses as older children and adults. Dr. Fauci also told Congress during a series of tense exchanges with Republican lawmakers just last week that children were not immune. And like in Israel, where premature school reopenings prompted outbreaks, the same appears to be unfolding in America.
One elementary student has already tested positive since children returned to school this week in Cherokee and Paulding County, Georgia. At a sleepaway summer camp in the state, more than 260 campers and staff were infected.
The report also notes the general lack of transparency by the administration in matters like funds distribution for the Paycheck Protection Program, which, according to the Department of Justice has already triggered at least 30 fraud cases that bilked taxpayers out of millions.
The very purpose of the select committee is to monitor that fraud and stop it, Clyburn said before noting how just a day earlier the committee announced it recuperated $109 million in coronavirus relief funds improperly received by nursing home affiliate Ensign Group. Health and Human Services distributed the funds to the organization unprompted. The waste was found courtesy of an investigation the committee launched in mid-June.
Other massively lucrative corporations like MiMedx, which received $10 million in loans meant for small businesses, were also forced to return funds after the committee launched a probe this April.
“The simple finding of our oversight so far is this: six months after the virus claimed its first American life, the federal government has still not developed and implemented a national strategy to protect the American people,” Clyburn said. “This failure has prolonged the crisis, resulted in tens of thousands of preventable deaths and worsened economic devastation.”
The Senate and House have continued bitter negotiations on the next round of economic relief but have been largely far apart on how much should be reupped for unemployment insurance, as the nation’s eviction moratorium has already expired, and a $600 weekly plus-up on jobless benefits has run out.
Congressmen Richard Neal of Massachusetts and Bobby Scott of Virginia told reporters Thursday they did not expect House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to relent on the terms laid out in the Heroes Act, a $3 trillion relief package passed by the House two months ago.
“The speaker understands how things are interrelated,” Scott said.
It would be a “waste of money,” Scott argued, to propose money for education without sufficient funding for state and local governments.
“If we don’t support them as the first order of business, they will be cutting education more than appropriations we might make,” the lawmaker said. “If you decide to do this piecemeal, you won’t get anything done.”
Scott chair the House Committee on Education and Labor, while Neal is chair of the Committees on Ways and Means, and Pallone is head of Energy and Commerce. The chairs of Financial Services Committee and the Committee on Oversight and Reform also signed Thursday’s report.