Federal leadership needed
In a few short weeks, COVID-19 has grown from a distant concern to a public health crisis. Although the U.S. had several months to prepare for the virus, when the first case was confirmed on Jan. 21, we were dangerously unprepared.
After the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the U.S. created permanent epidemic monitoring and command units within the National Security Council (NSC) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to respond to severe infectious disease threats. These units included experienced scientists and professionals who knew how to combat pandemics by coordinating public health agencies and federal, state, and local governments. But In 2018, President Donald Trump eliminated the NSC’s global health security unit and fired the entire pandemic response chain of command, hobbling the professional knowledge and experience capability of the federal government to lead civilians and medical professionals through this crisis.
Testing for coronavirus was also woefully inadequate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) struggled to create effective test kits. In February, local health officials reported that CDC tests were producing invalid results. It took more than two weeks for the CDC to redistribute reliable test kits to states including New York and Washington where early outbreaks skyrocketed. There are still shortages in CDC tests and other crucial medical resources across the nation.
Now, with almost 9,500 cases across 50 states and new cases growing at an exponential rate (an increase of over 3,000 from March 18-19), we are in the midst of a pandemic. Yet there is still a dearth of federal leadership and action. We lack direction and collaboration among health organizations, the executive branch has abdicated responsibility and pushed it onto states, and the president delivers inconsistent messages and seems more concerned with the stock market than American lives. A patchwork of policies is insufficient. We need rapid comprehensive federal action.
To contend with continuing shortages of CDC test kits, the executive branch should authorize states to administer their own tests and cut red tape and overregulation by the CDC and FDA. Although regulations are important, in the present crisis they are hindering our ability to act. Testing is the first step in treating the sick and establishing containment strategies.
The president should direct active duty Army Corps and National Guard personnel to expand hospital capacity by retrofitting existing facilities like hotels, universities, and military bases. According to the American Hospital Association, the US has less than one million staffed hospital beds. Coronavirus projections indicate this capacity will likely be exceeded. States lack the resources to prepare for this possibility, but Army Corps and National Guard personnel and resources can help treat patients and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed.
Further action must be taken to limit gatherings, close public meeting places, and restrict travel between heavily impacted regions. Significant aid must be distributed to help out of work Americans.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has led the nation by taking decisive action to limit viral spread in Michigan. But to fight this on a national scale, we need executive leadership and federal coordination. We must acknowledge the severity of our predicament and take swift action to care for the ill, contain the virus, and prepare for the likelihood that things will get worse before they get better.
Nick Wilson is a junior at Boston College and is studying environmental sciences.