New president Joseph R. Biden Jr. has said he will reaffirm a federal strategy to bring the virus under control, including a call for everyone to wear masks over the next 100 days and a coordinated plan to expand delivery of vaccines. “We are going to handle the hell of this operation,” Biden said Friday. “Our administration will lead with science and scientists.”
The strategy signals a change from last year, in which the Trump administration largely delegated responsibility for controlling the virus and reopening the economy to 50 governors, fracturing the nation’s response. Interviews with more than 100 health officials, political and community leaders across the country, and a review of state government emails and other records provide a more complete picture of all that went wrong:
The severity of the current outbreak can be attributed to the rush to reopen last spring. Many governors acted quickly, sometimes acting over the objections of their advisers. Nationwide reopenings have resulted in a surge in new infections that have grown over time: never again would the country’s average fall below 20,000 new cases per day.
Science has been sidelined at all levels of government. More than 100 state and local health officials have been fired or resigned since the start of the pandemic. Leading scientists in Florida offered their expertise to the governor’s office but were marginalized, while Gov. Ron DeSantis turned to Dr. Scott W. Atlas, an adviser to Trump, and others whose views have been adopted in conservative circles but rejected by many scientists.
While the president publicly downplayed the need for masks, White House officials privately recommended that some states with worsening epidemics require a face mask in public spaces. But records show at least 26 states ignored White House recommendations on masks and other health concerns. In South Dakota, housekeeper Kristi Noem bragged to her political allies that she didn’t need masks even as her state was in the midst of an epidemic that has become one of the worst in the country.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis said states have faced tough choices in balancing the virus – often hearing competing voices on how best to do it – and said Mr Trump left them without political support which they needed as they urged the public to accept the masks. and social distancing. “The most important thing that would have made a difference was the clarity of the message from the person at the top,” Polis said in an interview.
The pandemic has indeed been accompanied by significant challenges, including record unemployment and a dynamic disease that continues to circle the globe. Without a national White House strategy, it is unlikely that any state could have completely stopped the spread of the pandemic.
But the majority of deaths in the United States have since come as the strategies needed to contain it were clear to state leaders, who had an array of options, from ordering masks to targeted closures and increased testing. Disparities emerged between states that took restrictions seriously and those that did not.
America now represents 4% of the world’s population, but accounts for about 20% of deaths worldwide. While Australia, Japan and South Korea have shown that it is possible to reduce the number of deaths, the United States – armed with wealth, scientific prowess and global power – has emerged as the world leader: they now have one of the highest concentrations of deaths, with nearly many deaths being reported as in any other country.
The rush to reopen was ‘the opportune moment that was lost’
The country once had the chance to embark on the path to defeat the virus.
There had been many missteps in the beginning. The United States failed to create a large testing and contact tracing network in January and February, which could have identified the first cases and possibly curb the crisis. Then cases exploded silently in New York City, as Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio waited crucial days to shut down schools and businesses.
Thousands of lives could have been saved in the New York metropolitan area alone if measures had been in place even a week earlier, the researchers said. Driven by the spring rush, New York and New Jersey have the nation’s worst death rates to date.