As early as January, scientists began sounding the alarm about a possible pandemic coming from Wuhan, China, and the need for widespread testing, procurement of personal protective equipment, or PPE, and restricting movements in the country to mitigate the virus’s spread.
From January 3 to March 13, a critical 70-day period to mitigate the virus, Trump refused to properly prepare for a potential pandemic, even as warnings kept mounting.
During weeks of inaction, the virus quickly spread unchecked across the country. Had Trump initiated social-distancing measures just two weeks earlier, 90 percent of the current death count could have been prevented. Now, the U.S. leads the world in confirmed cases and the number of deaths, even though Trump had ample warnings and time to prepare.
How did we get here? To find out, we have to go back in time—before a global pandemic, before the virus first hit the U.S., even before the first known case in China—to May 8, 2018.
It was on that day that Trump’s then-National Security Adviser John Bolton disbanded the Global Health Security and Biodefense unit, which Obama-Biden administration officials had set up to combat global pandemics.
Over the next two years, Trump’s budget proposals included significant cuts to CDC funding, putting pandemic planning at serious risk.
In September 2019, the Trump administration ended the PREDICT program, which had scientists in Wuhan and around the world detecting the emergence of novel viruses that could potentially lead to a pandemic. At the time, the program had identified 1,200 different viruses, including 160 novel coronaviruses.
Two months later, U.S. intelligence first reported that an infectious virus was quickly spreading through the Wuhan region. Intelligence analysts briefed authorities in the National Security Council at the White House, but it did not lead to any precautions taken by President Trump.
Trump’s own HHS secretary, Alex Azar, first briefed Trump on the severity of the virus on January 18. Trump reportedly dismissed Azar as an “alarmist.”
On January 20, the first case of coronavirus appeared in the United States.
On January 22, Trump made his first televised remarks on the virus.
On the same day, the World Health Organization declared that the coronavirus transmits rapidly from human to human. Under Obama-Biden-era guidelines, that declaration would have triggered the federal government to obtain stockpiles of personal protective equipment in anticipation of the epidemic. The Trump administration ignored warnings, and our nation faced extreme PPE shortages just eight weeks later.
Secretary Azar reportedly tried to sound the alarm to Trump for a second time on January 30, but once again, he was dismissed.
The next day, Azar declared coronavirus as a public health emergency. Trump, who had been worried about backlash from China while negotiating the trade deal, finally relented and announced restrictions on travel to and from China.
In fact, 38 countries had placed restrictions on travel from China on or before the ban went into effect on February 2. And the Trump travel ban was largely ineffective, with more than 40,000 travelers arriving in the U.S. after the ban took place.
In February, the Trump administration botched the development of our national testing capacity. On February 4, instead of using proven tests provided by the World Health Organization and used in South Korea, Trump and the CDC opted to create our own test kits. The tests produced faulty results.
Furthermore, the faulty tests had to be verified by the CDC in Atlanta, creating a massive backlog. The backlog prompted the CDC to impose limited testing, which only included people who have traveled to Wuhan or have been in close contact with such travelers.
On February 26, Trump appointed Mike Pence to lead his coronavirus response—the same Mike Pence that, as governor, failed to stop a preventable outbreak of HIV/AIDS in rural Indiana five years earlier. Experts say Pence’s poor leadership actually made the problem worse.
By March 13, the U.S. had only conducted about 25,000 tests, crippling our ability to know how quickly the virus was spreading. South Korea was able to conduct nearly ten times as many tests in the same time frame.
Meanwhile, Trump continued to golf, hold political rallies, and downplay the coronavirus threat throughout February.
By March 8, the U.S. had 721 confirmed cases, doubling every three days. Trump was finally forced to act. On March 13, he declared a national emergency and the next day implemented the chaotic travel ban on Europe.
By mid-March, hospitals across the country began to experience supply shortages. Democrats and experts urged Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act, which would empower the federal government to force private industry to produce critical medical supplies. Once again, Trump did not act. As cases continued to rise, PPE dramatically dwindled, and medical professionals used improvised gear and homemade masks.
Trump was forced to invoke the DPA on March 18. But he still refrained from leveraging the act to its full potential to save American lives, and he provided few details, creating chaos and confusion.
As many health experts called for nationwide social distancing, Trump resisted.
On March 16, the market dropped 12 percent, its worst day ever. Trump finally issued CDC guidance calling governors to implement stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of the coronavirus for 15 days. But only eight days into the guidance, Trump said he wanted to open the country early, risking the lives of millions of Americans.
Cases in the United States continued to rise exponentially well into April. The stay-at-home order guidance was later extended to an additional 30 days.
Since then, Trump has turned his efforts to rewriting history and deflecting blame away from himself.
From the beginning, Trump’s chaotic responses have exacerbated the worst pandemic in modern history. He said we needed to liberate states and send people back to work. He forced meatpacking workers to stay on the job despite the risks. All of these failures allowed the virus to spread unchecked for weeks.
Trump’s critical failures and inaction have resulted in more than 80,000 Americans dying, over 1.3 million confirmed cases, and at least 21 million jobs lost. And for people of color and rural Americans who lack access to health infrastructure, the effects have been far worse. So much of this loss could have been prevented had Trump prepared for the pandemic, listened to the experts, and acted earlier.
Trump’s chaos has a tragic price.