WASHINGTON (CN) – A former White House Ebola czar told lawmakers Tuesday the inability of the U.S. to conduct widespread domestic coronavirus testing by this point in the outbreak, while a hard-hit nation like South Korea tests hundreds of thousands of people, is a failure of policy and execution.
“There’s no reason why other countries are so far ahead of us,” Ron Klain, former Ebola response coordinator under President Barack Obama, told members of a House Homeland Security subcommittee. “The United States is not being creative and flexible as it deals with the increased number of cases.”
The U.S. death toll from the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, hit 29 on Tuesday with more than 900 confirmed cases nationwide.
News of the first virus-related death in New Jersey emerged Tuesday just as Klain and other health experts were gathering in Washington to discuss their recommendations for the federal government’s response.
Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told lawmakers at a different hearing earlier Tuesday that two of the nation’s largest diagnostic corporations, LabCorps and Quest Diagnostics, began processing test kits en masse on Monday. That should expedite things considerably, but for Christopher Neuwirth of the New Jersey Department of Health, that news would have been more welcome weeks ago.
“Coordination and communication at all levels of government is incredibly important to ensure states have a unified and coherent strategy to mobilize all of their resources,” the assistant commissioner said.
To date, the entire state of New Jersey has been woefully lacking resources. The state has received just two coronavirus-testing kits, Neuwirth testified. With the way the kits work, he said, this allows for the testing of just 432 individuals.
“We would expect additional capacity in the state of New Jersey, and to date those two kits are something that needs to be addressed,” Neuwirth said. “Recognizing how fast-moving the situation was back in January, it’s important information be shared in a timely manner.”
The federal government received its first warning about the virus on New Year’s Eve, but it was weeks before a task force was set up on the federal level. The delay was compounded by frequently confusing messages emanating from the Trump administration.
Whether it was the White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow making unfounded proclamations that the virus was “very much” under control in the U.S., while information was still emerging about the virus, or President Donald Trump’s repeated overly rosy statements like his plainly false claim in late February that case rates were “going very substantially down” when they were not, experts say this messaging is patently unhelpful.
There are two elements an administration must have in place to help a public wracked by a widespread viral outbreak, lawmakers were told Tuesday.
“It’s competence and confidence. On the competence side, the government must provide leadership and funding to deliver this response. It’s a giant project to manage these cases,” Klain said. “The federal government will not only have to provide expertise and leadership, but also confidence. We need to see from Washington clear messaging so American people can panic less and understand there’s a plan in place and a way of attacking it.”
Nadine Gracia, executive vice president of the independent nonprofit Trust for America’s Health, said that the Trump administration’s creation of a task force specifically for coronavirus was a smart move. But the praise didn’t come without a caveat.
“We need to continue to rely on science and evidence to make decisions, whether they are policy decisions or public health guidance,” Gracia said.
Vice President Mike Pence, who has no experience with viruses, leads the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force. As Italy shut down its borders to control the spread of the virus there, lawmakers asked Klain whether Trump’s initial travel ban on China was an effective tool for fighting the outbreak.
Numerous studies of travel ban impact on viral outbreaks have found that while they delay the introduction of a disease, they certainly don’t stop it.
“We’re living through that right now. The Trump administration imposed a ban on China yet coronavirus is here. It delayed it but didn’t stop it. Why? By the time the ban was in effect, 2,000 to 3,000 people from China were already here,” Klain said. “The travel bans never prevented Americans from traveling back home to our country, as it should not, but Americans can bring this as much as non-U.S. nationals can.”
Trump’s travel ban also exempted crews of planes and ships coming into the U.S. from China.
“Our health care system needs imports from China. We can’t have [personal protective equipment] or prescription drugs [without it.] They’re coming from China. Boats from China are driven by men and women who are Chinese,” Klain said. “That was exempted. We live in an interconnected world. [Travel bans] will always be incomplete or too late. It was smart in some respects to slow the disease, but we’re living the reality: it did not keep this virus out of our country.”
South Korea has so far tested over 150,000 people and has also confirmed more than 6,000 cases of coronavirus inside its borders. The fatality rate there hovered around just 0.6% by the end of last week, far lower than global average of 3.4%. The U.S., by comparison, has tested just over 4,500 people.
The CDC’s decision under the Trump administration to abandon World Health Organization testing models likely contributed to the delay as well, Klain said.
“I understand we don’t want to panic people or be hyperbolic,” he said. “But we’ve known since January that we would see a ramp-up of cases, and what we’re going through right now is public panic because it’s coming on suddenly and unexpectedly, and we haven’t really prepared for that.”