EDITORIAL: Right the ship on COVID-19

York Dispatch Editorial Board
President Donald Trump talks about getting his temperature taken as he departs after speaking during a news conference about the coronavirus in the James Brady Briefing Room at the White House, Saturday, March 14, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The more the Trump administration tries to come to terms with the unprecedented challenges presented by the novel coronavirus pandemic, the more its shortcomings and inadequacies become ever more apparent.

Having learned nothing from the chaos caused at airports three years ago when Trump abruptly banned air travel from majority Muslim countries, the administration again mucked up international travel this weekend by instituting compulsory medical screening for incoming passengers at 13 airports.

The result: hours-long waits in long, snaking lines that made for densely populated airports — exactly the type of situation health experts have been warning Americans to avoid.

The inability to think though the travel screenings and plan accordingly reflects the administration’s continued failures in responding to the international health threat.

  • Initial test kits released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were faulty — a misstep that was magnified by the Food and Drug Administration, which withheld permission for university clinics and private labs to conduct test development until Feb. 29.
  • There was little if any effort to stockpile medical supplies like surgical masks, nor recommendations to retailers to stock up on household items like hand sanitizer against the possibility of panic buying.
  • There was no economic plan in place to cushion the financial blows the pandemic has generated. A hasty interest-rate cut by the Federal Reserve landed without effect, as did the agency’s offer of at least $1.5 trillion worth of bank loans to help steady financial markets.
  • President Trump and conservatives in government and the media repeatedly downplayed the outbreak as some sort of hoax designed to undermine the president. (Everything — everything — is about Trump with Trump.)

Further eroding the ability to react efficiently and effectively, the administration has repeatedly cut funding to the CDC and two years ago shut down a White House unit dedicated to preparing for pandemics.

Add to that typically Trumpian boasts that the government response has been “perfect” and that the president’s decision to prevent travel from China in the early days of the outbreak (evidently the only play in his how-to-counter-coronavirus handbook) was life-saving and it’s no wonder public confidence in the administration’s handling of the outbreak is waning.

Despite presidential predictions just last month that the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States would soon be “close to zero,” the numbers are skyrocketing: Total cases topped 3,000 over the weekend amid still very sporadic testing. (Current estimates indicate the U.S. has conducted about 21,000 tests, or roughly 23 per 1 million citizens. Contrast that with Italy’s 826 test per million or South Korea’s 3,692 per million.) And there have already been 60 fatalities.

The administration needs to begin responding at level of competence equal to the challenge.

A House-passed emergency relief bill is good start: two weeks of paid sick leave and up to three months of family and medical leave for qualifying workers of companies with fewer than 500 employees; free coronavirus tests (when those tests are finally available); supplemental funding for food-assistance programs; and unemployment assistance. The Senate must quickly follow suit this week.

Trump’s declaration of a national emergency Friday is also a welcome step, freeing up an estimated $50 billion in federal aid and allowing agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency more flexibility in assisting state and local governments. 

The administration must also bolster its efforts to make test kits more widely available and partner with private interests to establish drive-through testing sites.

Finally, it would be nice if the president would model the behavior his administration is urging the rest of the nation to follow. Amid recommendations about social distancing and avoiding crowds, Trump continued last week to join large groups and shake hands despite his exposure to infected individuals.

There is no doubt York County, the state and the nation will get through this crisis. But progress should be made thanks to the policies and actions of the federal government and not, as it has too often seemed these past weeks, in spite of them.