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Outrage of the Month: Trump’s Pandemic Response: Catastrophic to the Very End

Health Letter, February 2021

By Michael Carome, M.D.


If you’re not outraged,
you’re not paying attention!

Read what Public Citizen has to say about the biggest blunders and outrageous offenses in the world of public health, published monthly in Health Letter.

Image: TJ Brown/Shutterstock.com

Donald Trump will go down as the worst President by far in U.S. history. Exhibit A for this well-deserved ignominious distinction was his administration’s chaotic and grossly negligent year-long response to the coronavirus pandemic that contributed substantially to widespread avoidable suffering and death across the country.

Thanks to Trump, our nation experienced three successive surges of COVID-19 over the past year, with the third — which began in late October — being markedly more widespread and deadly than the previous two. As of Jan. 20, when Joe Biden thankfully became president and Trump finally slinked away to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, the number of confirmed coronavirus infections in the U.S. had surpassed 24.2 million, with more than 400,000 reported COVID-19 deaths, numbers that far exceeded those seen in any other country. At the peak of the most recent surge prior to Trump’s departure, daily reported cases crested at 300,000 on Jan. 2 and daily reported deaths reached a record 4,462 on Jan. 12.

Since the earliest days of the pandemic, Trump misled the public by spewing an endless stream of false, overly optimistic, self-congratulatory and often incoherent statements about the coronavirus and his administration’s response to it. For example, according to the Washington Post, on at least 40 occasions last year he claimed the coronavirus would simply go away.

As summarized previously in Health Letter, nearly every aspect of Trump’s pandemic response was catastrophic. He failed to promptly order the implementation of a federally funded and coordinated plan for massively scaled-up testing, contact tracing and quarantining of all infected individuals and their potentially infected contacts. For months, he repeatedly disparaged the public health benefits of wearing face masks. He recklessly encouraged states to ignore the guidelines from the White House’s coronavirus task force for a gradual, stepwise approach for reopening businesses and relaxing stay-at-home restrictions. He failed to ensure the implementation of a mandatory federal standard to protect workers from exposure to the coronavirus. He neglected to take steps to mitigate the significant racial inequities that have caused Black and Latinx people to develop COVID-19 at much higher rates. And he promoted the use of unproven, dangerous drugs to treat and prevent COVID-19.

When things went awry, Trump and his cronies blamed and bullied others, including the World Health Organization, journalists, governors and even his own Inspectors General and senior health officials, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Dr. Anne Schuchat at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a final display of remarkable ineptitude, the Trump administration bungled the rollout of the first two COVID-19 vaccines — one developed by Pfizer and BioNTech and the other by Moderna and the National Institutes of Health — that were granted emergency authorization by the Food and Drug Administration on Dec. 11 and Dec. 18, respectively. Despite having invested billions of dollars to ensure large-scale production of these vaccines before they were even authorized and having several months to develop a national plan to coordinate the distribution and administration of the COVID-19 vaccines, the rollout of these vaccines in the U.S. was disjointed and sluggish, with the federal government deferring to states the complex details of how to prioritize who was to be vaccinated and then how to get the vaccine into people’s arms.

Some observers appropriately used terms like “debacle” and “utter fiasco” to characterize the Trump administration’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and former Baltimore Health Commissioner, expressed anger at the incompetence of the federal vaccine rollout and told MedPage Today that “we cannot take a lackadaisical approach to this process… [T]his should be a wartime mobilization… It should be all hands on deck, no expenses spared, 24-7.” Yet Trump, who essentially ignored the pandemic since his election loss in early November, failed to muster the type of national mobilization effort that was desperately needed to save American lives.

Adding a final exclamation point to the Trump Administration’s disastrously inept pandemic response, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Jan. 12 announced that the administration was changing course on vaccine distribution: To get more doses of the vaccine to people quicker, the federal government would release to states all COVID-19 vaccine doses that previously had been held in reserve for people who needed second doses. But three days later, the public learned from media reports that no such COVID-19 vaccine reserve existed, a disclosure that stunned governors and health officials throughout the U.S.

In the midst of the greatest public health crisis in a century, the most senior federal health official in the Trump administration apparently was completely clueless about how much COVID-19 vaccine had been held in reserve by the federal government.

President Joe Biden’s administration has developed and begun implementing a detailed federal plan for bringing the pandemic under control and setting the country on a course toward normalcy. But cleaning up the pandemic mess left by Donald Trump will take months. In the meantime, more than a hundred thousand Americans likely will die from COVID-19 in the initial months of Biden’s administration. Blame for those deaths rests squarely on Trump.