The COVID Column: Why and How Did COVID-19 Take Over the United States?

by Finley Keene


Outside Bellevue Hospital. Photo taken by Savannah Torres.

Question:

Why and how did COVID-19 take over the United States?


Answer:

The flu is an annual pandemic (surprising, right?), and, according to Health.com, “Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the flu kills 290,000 to 650,000 people per year.” Do you remember the last big virus (you don’t if you’re my age, but still)? Yeah, that’s right: Ebola. Guess what? It was only an epidemic (a disease that affects a large number of people within a community, population, or region). In fact, Ebola only had 11,323 total deaths, while COVID-19 has killed 520,000 people as of March 9th in the U.S. alone. COVID, now a pandemic, could have only been an epidemic if we had good luck, good leadership, and preparedness.


One reason COVID spread so quickly is that it is a very potent and deadly virus. It is airborne and can easily infect people through the mouth and nose. It infects the upper respiratory system, meaning it compromises your lungs and ability to breathe. Another reason it’s so dangerous is because many cases are asymptomatic, which means the person with COVID shows no signs of being infected. In fact, according to this Infectious Disease Advisor article, “59% of transmissions came from individuals who did not present with symptoms (35% presymptomatic; 24% asymptomatic).” This means that nearly 60% of people with COVID didn’t know that they had it and spread it to more people! Even worse, we have never seen this virus before in humans, so no one was immune to it.


In addition to COVID being such a contagious virus, the initial test developed by the CDC (Center for Disease Control) was ineffective and gave many false results. This was mainly because the FDA (the Federal Drug Administration, the organization who approves these tests) limited private companies' ability to experiment and develop COVID-19 tests. The great strength the US has always had, not just in virology, is that we’ve always had a wide variety of people and groups working on any given problem,” says Keith Jerome, the head of virology at the University of Washington. “When we decided all coronavirus testing had to be done by a single entity, even one as outstanding as CDC, we basically gave away our greatest strength.” According to this NPR article, officials knew that 33 percent of the tests could be wrong and give false results. In addition, it was very difficult for anyone to even get access to these tests. Flawed testing and the limit on private companies' ability to help develop a better test led to COVID taking over the U.S.

In my opinion, the biggest reason we are in the pit that we are in now is because we lacked active leadership at the very top, which affected the overall ability of the federal government to respond adequately. The former president cared more about his power than his own citizens dying. Proof of this fact is when he tried to downplay the virus, because he didn’t want the economy to crash. At the time, a strong economy was one success he was eager to highlight. Additionally, Trump's inadequacy is directly shown by his negligence of health advisors' suggestions, and his denial of negative news. White House press conferences ended up being two hour long Trump 2020 ads, while Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx (COVID response team members) were sidelined.


Another reason Donald Trump was a poor pandemic leader was the fact that he didn’t understand the role of the government. He left individual states to fight over the resources and took no charge at all. In one of his many efforts to shift the blame (that included “the China Virus,” because the virus originated in China), he tried to blame former president Obama for the lack of pandemic response preparedness. Apart from it being his fourth year as president (meaning Trump’s administration should have had policies in place), the Obama administration left a 70 page pandemic playbook that described exactly what to do if there was an airborne virus like COVID. This playbook included a chart of the possible risks and factors for what might happen in the future and went in great detail to prepare the federal government to respond to something like this. (I strongly suggest you look at the playbook. It has a lot of “what if’s” that actually happened in this pandemic!)


Trump also dissolved many programs that were designed to prevent biological crises, like The White House’s National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense. According to this Reuters article, “Its mission was established after the Ebola epidemic of 2014: to do everything possible within the vast powers and resources of the U.S. government to prepare for the next disease outbreak and prevent it from becoming an epidemic or pandemic.” His NSC combined the scope of this directorate with counter proliferation and nuclear arms. This program was supposed to be about medical emergencies, not nuclear bombs. In fact, that is pretty much the exact opposite of what the program was made for.


There were many factors working together that got us to this point— the U.S. struggling in the middle of a global pandemic. It was a lot of bad luck, in terms of the potency of the virus, our leadership at the time, and colossal unpreparedness due to aforementioned leaders.


If you have any questions regarding COVID-19 you want me to research and answer, please email me at finleyk@eschs.org.

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