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Democratic Convention, Night 1: Hitting Trump Team on Pandemic Preparedness

On the first night of the Democrats’ 2020 national convention, one thing was clear. This time would be different. No crowds, buttons, placards or party swag. The coronavirus pandemic was an ever-present theme.

Still, there was a virtual National Anthem and everyday people offering their thoughts on the upcoming election and the state of the nation. A young woman whose father, a Donald Trump voter, died of COVID-19, was among them. A list of marquee speakers including Sen. Bernie Sanders and former first lady Michelle Obama spoke directly into the camera.

Our partners at PolitiFact noted that “nothing jumped out as Pants on Fire false” during the course of the evening. Some claims, they went on to say, were interestingly accurate. Others could have used more context.

We focus here on two points related to the Trump administration’s pandemic preparedness.

“Vice President Biden and President Obama assembled a pandemic playbook to make sure that America was prepared and protected. The Trump administration disbanded the pandemic response team that was given to them.” — Eva Longoria Bastón

Longoria is largely correct on both points.

After the 2014 Ebola crisis, the Obama administration created a document titled “Playbook for Early Response to High-Consequence Emerging Infectious Disease Threats and Biological Incidents.”

The National Security Council developed the guidebook in 2016 with the goal of assisting leaders “in coordinating a complex U.S. Government response to a high-consequence emerging disease threat anywhere in the world.” It outlined questions to ask, who should be asked to get the answers and what key decisions should be made.

Politico reported on the document in March, but White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany dismissed the playbook’s usefulness when asked about it in May.

As for the pandemic response team, the Trump White House reorganized the team that oversaw global health security issues under former national security adviser John Bolton. Tom Bossert, a homeland security adviser who recommended strong defenses against disease and biological warfare, was pushed out by Bolton in April 2018, The Washington Post reported. In May 2018, the top White House official in charge of the U.S. response to pandemics, Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, left the administration and was not replaced.

Neither White House official nor their teams, which were responsible for coordinating the U.S. response to pandemic outbreaks across agencies, were replaced before the coronavirus arrived.

In November 2019, a bipartisan group of lawmakers and experts brought together by the Center for Strategic and International Studies to focus on U.S. global health security formally recommended that health security leadership on the NSC be restored.

— Jon Greenberg, PolitiFact

“And our current federal government is dysfunctional and incompetent. It couldn’t fight off the virus. In fact, it didn’t even see it coming. The European virus infected the Northeast while the White House was still fixated on China.” — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo

There is evidence that suggests Cuomo is right. The disease most likely arrived in Europe from China, but it was travel from Europe to the United States that brought the disease to New York.

Researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai traced the strains of the COVID-19 virus — which was circulating in late January and was responsible for the New York City COVID-19 outbreak — back to Europe.

The study, published in July, examined the genomic sequences of the COVID-19 virus based on samples taken from confirmed COVID cases in the Mount Sinai Health System. The cases were traced through March and represented a large number of New York City neighborhoods. Only one strain was closely related to COVID-19 strains circulating in Asia.

“These results show that SARS-CoV-2 came to the New York City area predominantly via Europe through untracked transmissions,” said Dr. Viviana Simon, professor of microbiology and infectious diseases at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, in a press release.

Cuomo’s charge that the Trump administration was fixated only on the spread from China has some merit as well. Beginning in mid-January, the U.S. started screening travelers arriving from Wuhan, China, where the COVID-19 outbreak started. Then on Jan. 31, President Trump banned non-U.S. citizens from traveling from China into the United States. But U.S. citizens could still travel back from China, as long as they observed a 14-day quarantine upon arrival. No such travel limits were put in place for Europe until mid-March.

— Victoria Knight, Kaiser Health News

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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