The mainstream media’s coverage of the COVID-19 (aka “Coronavirus”) pandemic has made for an interesting political Rorschach test. Leading the media pack has been the New York Times (The Times) with their April 11th hit-piece decrying President Trump’s handling of our nation’s Coronavirus response. The Times has been pushing out three distinct anti-Trump narratives to the public and its downstream media partners. The first narrative is that Mr. Trump was slow to respond to the Coronavirus threat, downplaying it early on and then later mismanaging federal testing initiatives. The second painted Mr. Trump’s imposition of travel restrictions on those entering the U.S. from China as xenophobic and racist. Finally, the third narrative was that Trump continues to override the professional judgement of his own healthcare experts by pushing Coronavirus treatments whose efficacy has yet to be clinically proven. For the average Trump hater committed to an ideology of “orange man bad,” these narratives are political manna that feed their alternate reality. For those who prefer to see the bigger picture, here is a basic timeline of the Trump Administration’s response to the Coronavirus threat that includes a different perspective.
Much of the criticism concerning President Trump’s response to the Coronavirus outbreak has to do with his actions and public statements between January and mid-March of 2020. Leading into this period, we know from multiple press accounts that Mr. Trump’s intelligence officials were tracking the virus outbreak in China in November 2019, and status reports were being circulated to the National Security Council (NSC) about the outbreak in December. However, it was not until January 3, 2020 that Mr. Trump received his first notification of the outbreak in China in the President’s Daily Brief (PDB). Therefore, we can start Mr. Trump’s response timeline from there. None of these early NSC reports indicated that human-to-human transmission was taking place or that a single death had occurred anywhere globally.
It was not until January 11th that the Chinese state media reported the first death from Coronavirus, the presumptive cause being animal-to-human transmission. However, the World Health Organization (WHO), relying solely on the word of Chinese authorities, confirmed in a tweet on January 14th that no human-to-human transmission had yet occurred in China. Although China refused to allow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to investigate on their soil, the Trump Administration had no reason to act domestically at this time.
President Trump’s domestic response to Coronavirus commenced on January 7th when the CDC established an “Incident Management System” to support its Covid-19 Emergency Operations Center that would be established two weeks later. On January 17th, the (CDC) initiated containment by screening travelers at key U.S. airports. This was two days before Chinese authorities publicly announced their first observation of human-to-human Coronavirus transmission. Subsequently, on January 21st, the CDC announced that the first individual diagnosed with Coronavirus traveling from Wuhan, China had entered the U.S. on January 15th. According to the New York Times, Seattle researchers who identified this infected individual sought approval from the FDA and Washington State officials to repurpose nasal swabs taken for a different influenza study to determine whether Coronavirus was spreading in their region. Both FDA and Washington State officials denied the request citing regulatory obligations to protect patient privacy and the fact that their research laboratory was not certified for clinical testing. According to experts quoted by The Epoch Times it was FDA overregulation and centralization of diagnostic testing, policies implemented during the Obama Administration, that delayed such testing for Coronavirus in Seattle and elsewhere. Concurrent with this denial, the CDC proceeded to develop its own Coronavirus diagnostic test according to FDA regulatory standards pre-dating the Trump administration.
On January 21st, the WHO finally acknowledged the possibility that human-to-human transmission might be taking place in China. Ironically, this acknowledgement came the very same day Dr. Anthony Fauci, NIAID Director and advisor to President Trump, was quoted saying that Coronavirus was “not a major threat to the people of the United States.” This was the consensus message President Trump was hearing between January 21st through the 29th from his own health advisors, independent healthcare experts, and even the New York Times, all of whom tried to downplay the threat.
On January 24th the CDC announced that it had developed a test suitable for distribution to its public health partners. The CDC would go on to confirm on January 30th that human-to-human transmission was taking place in the U.S. The very next day, January 31st, President Trump acted to contain the spread by imposing travel restrictions on aliens entering the U.S. from China.
Contrary to New York Times’ reporting, Mr. Trump acted responsibly based on the information available to him throughout the month of January 2020. Dr. Fauci obviously agreed with this assessment because he would later defend Mr. Trump on April 2nd saying he took the threat of a Coronavirus pandemic seriously from the beginning. Of course, he was doing this while Congressman Adam Schiff, Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, was ignoring the Coronavirus threat. Instead, The Times neglected to mention Mr. Schiff was leading Congressional Democrats to distract President Trump and the American people from focusing on Coronavirus by pursuing an unfounded impeachment.
President Trump was subjected to almost universal accusations of racism and xenophobia from progressive Democrats following his imposition of travel restrictions on China. On February 1st, former Vice President Joe Biden exclaimed “This is no time for Donald Trump’s record of hysteria and xenophobia … and fearmongering to lead the way instead of science.” House and Senate Democrats responded to Trump’s travel restrictions by once again calling for passage of the “No Ban Act,” with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying Democrats would oppose the restrictions in Congress and in the courts. What Speaker Pelosi did not say is that there was zero chance of Democrats ending these restrictions because the Supreme Court had already affirmed the President’s legal authority to implement them.
Accusing President Trump of racism is nothing new for the Democrats. Of course, they conveniently forget the fact that Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton have also implemented travel restrictions, albeit to confront different threats. Following these accusations of racism, Dr. Fauci told FOX News that President Trump’s early decision to restrict travel from China, and later from Europe, absolutely helped bolster containment of Coronavirus in the U.S. Considering this, accusations that Trump’s travel bans were racist now ring hollow.
On February 5th, President Trump was acquitted on two charges in his impeachment trial. With impeachment behind him, Mr. Trump and his administration would spend the next six weeks focusing on containing domestic spread of Coronavirus. On February 6th, the CDC began shipping its newly developed Coronavirus test kits to state laboratories and other health partners. Unfortunately, less than one week after the first shipment, problems surfaced with the accuracy of test results. The CDC took about two weeks to fix the problem by replacing one of the kit’s reagents, and then resumed shipments.
Of course, any Coronavirus test samples that are collected also need to be processed. Federal regulations in place as of mid-February required that the CDC’s Coronavirus tests also be processed by the CDC. This restriction, if left intact, would have prevented the U.S. from scaling domestic testing capacity to a point where we could measure the full spread of the virus. Therefore, at President Trump’s direction, the FDA announced regulatory changes on February 29th that cleared the way for widespread Coronavirus testing by engaging private-sector laboratories. This push by Mr. Trump to partner with the private sector was intended to eventually overcome the delays experienced by the CDC with their earlier rollout of Coronavirus testing. These private sector tests could be marketed and distributed without FDA clearance providing participating companies make this fact clear in their product labeling.
Meanwhile, during the month of February, prominent Democrats were encouraging people to get out and socialize in public, clearly ignoring the CDC’s warning about human-to-human transmission of Coronavirus. For example, on February 2nd, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio and Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot held a press conference where they pandered to accusations of racism against President Trump while offering the public bad epidemiological guidance. Barbot stated “This is not a time to fall prey to false information that you may be seeing on the internet, to fall prey to the stigma.… This is not something that you’re going to contract in the subway or on the bus.” Likewise on February 24th, Nancy Pelosi told residents and tourists in San Francisco that there was no reason to avoid visiting Chinatown due to Coronavirus concerns because local officials had the problem under control. So much for the claim that Democrats are the party of science.
According to the New York Times, it was not until the third week of February that some of President Trump’s health advisors would begin recommending a transition from containment to mitigation. On February 21st Dr. Robert Kadlec, one of these advisors, mustered the White House Coronavirus Task Force to highlight the urgency of this transition. This initiated an internal administration debate from late February into early March on the cost-benefit of restricting personal movement, social distancing, and a shutdown of economic activity. The New York Times’ hit-piece portrayed the Trump Administration’s internal debate as wasted time, as if Trump considered economic profits more important than people. However, the impacts of an economic shutdown are real and would kill people, a fact that Mr. Trump apparently understood better than The Times.
For example, a 2017 National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) study estimated the U.S. would see a 3.3% increase in drug-related deaths per 100,000 people for every 1.0% increase in unemployment. Assuming unemployment rises to 20% (16.5% higher than the pre-pandemic rate), this means our nation could experience a 54.5% increase in drug related deaths annually from an extended shutdown. Based on the CDC report of 67,367 drug related deaths in 2018, this could lead to an additional 36,715 deaths over the next 12 months.
Likewise, social science has noted a well-established correlation between unemployment and suicide. A 2014 study published in Psychological Medicine reported the relative risk (RR) of someone committing suicide when unemployed in U.S. populations at 1.58 (i.e., a 58% increase). The Lancet published a similar finding of an international study conducted in 2015 that showed an increased relative risk of 20-30 percent. Given the CDC reported 48,344 suicides in 2018, this increased risk would suggest that the U.S. might experience thousands of suicides during an economic shutdown resulting in high unemployment. Further, these undesirable outcomes do not include others we would expect to see including increases in homicide rates, domestic violence, and stress related health events (e.g., heart attacks).
On February 24th the Trump administration requested that Congress appropriate $2.5 billion in funding for vaccine development and to replenish personal protective equipment (PPE) stockpiles depleted during the Obama administration. On February 25th the CDC had only identified 14 cases of Coronavirus within the U.S., and another 39 U.S. residents waiting for repatriation from overseas. It was not until February 26th that the CDC reported the first case of community spread of the Coronavirus in the U.S. Therefore, the Trump administration showed reasonable and balanced judgement during most of February in delaying aggressive transition from containment to mitigation.
During the period from February 26th through March 16th, President Trump came to realize that the value of a containment strategy was waning, and that mitigation was inevitable. This was a gradual realization because as late as February 29th, Dr. Fauci said that Americans did not need to change their behavior because their risk of contracting Coronavirus remained low. The New York Times painted the Trump administration’s actions during this time as “a lost period during which the spread of the virus accelerated rapidly.” However, the economic implications of mitigation resulting from a hard shutdown of the U.S. economy were so significant that they deserved careful vetting. To provide appropriate focus on domestic mitigation, President Trump appointed Vice President Pence on February 26th to replace HHS Secretary Alex Azar as head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. From this point, the Trump administration took less than three weeks to deliberate and deliver its mitigation guidelines.
On March 11th, the WHO finally declared the Coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic, and on March 13th the Trump administration declared a national emergency concerning Coronavirus and its domestic health implications. On March 16th, the administration announced for the first time its recommendations for mitigating the spread of Coronavirus that included social distancing, schooling from home, and restrictions on domestic travel. The administration would voice its hope that such restrictions would be lifted by Easter Sunday, but as we all now know this projection was optimistic.
The New York Times’ progressive editorializing was on full display in its April 11 hit-piece trying to provide several narratives that all converged on one key point: Donald Trump is not only bad, he is incompetent. Of course, to communicate this point, The Times assigned six reporters to write its hit-piece, an assignment that only required half as many. Apparently, The Times figured that six reporters could drum up more aspersions about Mr. Trump from anonymous deep state sources. Therefore, they spared no expense.
The Times gave no consideration in its piece addressing how Mr. Trump had to manage public expectations concerning his administration’s response to an infectious disease. Contrary to the Times opinion, President Trump’s early communications concerning Coronavirus did not downplay the threat. Instead, Mr. Trump tried to provide hope and confidence to the public that the Coronavirus outbreak could be managed. One should remind The Times that this is exactly what FDR did to instill hope and confidence in the American people during WWII.
Further, The Times piece appears to give no consideration to the complexity of Mr. Trump’s decision that had to balance the social and economic interests of Coronavirus mitigation. This was especially true during February when some of America’s best health care experts were still learning about this illness. The Times so earnestly tries to portray the Trump administration as acting slowly. However, the Times chose to ignore Mr. Trump’s criticism of House Democrats who delayed passage of the $2 trillion Take Responsibility for Workers and Families Act that held up support for the unemployed for a week. That delay was created when Republicans objected to Democrats loading up this emergency legislation with unrelated progressive priorities such as windmills, corporate diversity, and the Kennedy Center.
The Times also downplayed the fact that Mr. Trump inherited a federal healthcare regulatory bureaucracy that was intentionally designed to optimize safety, privacy, and quality of care, the kind of outcomes one might expect in peacetime. This bureaucracy was not setup to achieve speed and scale for diagnostic testing during an emergency. Thus far, The Times ignored the remarkable job the Trump administration did of eliminating these regulatory barriers in a relatively short timeframe by engaging the private sector to scale our nation’s testing and therapeutic capabilities.
The Times also criticized President Trump’s bypassing the Federal healthcare regulatory bureaucracy when he advocated for the use of Hydroxychloroquine in treating Coronavirus. They offered this criticism even though this medication can be administered safely, and the fact that there is growing anecdotal evidence demonstrating it can be an effective treatment for some patients. It is important to point out that the FDA would later go on to approve Hydroxychloroquine for emergency use, a decision supported by the American Thoracic Society and thousands of independent doctors.
Based on media reports in April, we now know the first Coronavirus death in the U.S. occurred on February 6th, at least three week earlier than the previously reported death in Washington State. Given this, it is highly likely that Coronavirus had been circulating in California in January, or perhaps earlier, without being identified and contained. If this is true, The New York Times claim that the Trump administration wasted the month of February when testing might have contained Coronavirus falls flat. A novel and highly contagious Coronavirus circulating in California in January might have been impossible to contain domestically. That means The Times and the Trump administration were both trying to solve the wrong problem during February. In a perfect world, both would have been focused on mitigating Coronavirus weeks earlier. Since this is not a perfect world, maybe The Times should be more focused on holding China accountable for Coronavirus instead of Mr. Trump.
The New York Times is surely patting itself on the back for its Monday-morning quarterbacking of the President. However, thoughtful readers who prefer a fair and balanced presentation of history might want to consider the alternate narrative presented here. One thing is for certain, Mr. Trump’s orientation as a results-driven problem solver has empowered him to turn the federal health care regulatory bureaucracy on its head. His business relationships have help to leverage the power of private sector innovation to reengineer our nation’s Coronavirus testing and therapeutic capabilities. Recognizing this, a wise man once said: “It is not how you start the race … It is how you finish the race that matters.” When the final word on Mr. Trump’s Coronavirus race has been written, the smart money will bet on success.
Eric A. BeckEditor-In-ChiefFree Nation Media LLCGreenville, South Carolina