Trump officials delayed coronavirus epidemic plans because the president thought it was an overseas problem: report
President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference at the White House. (AFP / Roberto SCHMIDT)

On Saturday, the Washington Post painted a damning picture of President Donald Trump's Department of Health and Human Services, revealing how the agency "squandered time" needed to fight the coronavirus.

"The coronavirus had already begun to spiral out of control when Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, during routine Senate testimony, made a surprising claim," wrote Ashley Parker, Yasmeen Abutaleb, and Lena H. Sun. "'As of today, I can announce that the CDC has begun working with health departments in five cities to use its flu surveillance network to begin testing individuals with flu-like symptoms for the Chinese coronavirus,' Azar said. 'This effort will help see whether there is broader spread than we have been able to detect so far.'"

"But there were two major problems: the cities weren’t ready and the tests didn’t work," continued the report. "In fact, when Azar’s team had sent his prepared remarks to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before delivery, the agency pushed back and urged him to soften his language. State health departments had not yet been informed of the plans — and were certain to be upset by them — and the coronavirus test kits contained a faulty component that caused a spike in inconclusive results. Azar announced the plans anyway, in part because 'it would be really valuable for him [to] have the news,' as one HHS official put it in an internal email."

"Azar’s bungled announcement before the Senate Finance Committee on Feb. 13 was just one of many preventable missteps and blunders in the federal government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis — the embodiment of an administration that, for weeks, repeatedly squandered opportunities to manage and prepare for a global epidemic that has killed thousands worldwide and at least 17 so far in the United States," said the report. "This portrait of the precious weeks that President Trump and his administration frittered away in trying to deal with the coronavirus is the result of interviews with 16 current and former administration officials, state health officials and outside experts, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to share candid assessments."

The outbreak triggered infighting between several agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. Additionally, according to the report: "At the White House, Trump and many of his aides were initially skeptical of just how serious the coronavirus threat was, while the president often seemed disinterested as long as the virus was abroad. At first, when he began to engage, he downplayed the threat."

"Several experts said the United States should have spent more time making sure hospitals and state and local health departments had the money, training, personal protective equipment and resources they needed to respond to outbreaks," said the report. "But the White House’s messaging in January and well into late February that the virus was contained and under control probably led health-care facilities to be insufficiently prepared, these experts added."

Even now, the report warned, the administration is incapable of consistent messaging — despite having devoted so much time to it.

"Once in Atlanta, the president’s misstatements continued. Just one day prior, Pence had offered a disconcerting admission as he traveled to the West Coast: 'We don’t have enough tests today to meet what we anticipate will be the demand going forward,'" said the report. "Yet there was Trump, touring the CDC in a red 'Keep America Great' campaign hat and offering an alternate reality just 24 hours later during a chaotic appearance: “Anybody who wants a test will get a test, that’s the bottom line,” said Trump, who went on to describe the coronavirus testing kits as being nearly as 'perfect' as his phone call with the Ukrainian president last summer, which ultimately led to his impeachment."

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