Trump's failed COVID response: Managing a pandemic isn't a states' rights issue

It was only about a month ago that everyone seemed to take COVID-19 seriously. We were isolated in place, maintaining our distance, wiping down surfaces, and taking precautions to keep ourselves, our families, and our communities safe. There were daily televised briefings by the national COVID-19 task force, and while those sessions had their fair share of troubling moments, they gave the impression that the federal government had a plan. 

Those briefings would have been a disaster were it not for the data-driven, measured recommendations of Drs. Deborah Birx and Anthony FauciAnthony FauciOvernight Health Care: Trump to take executive action after coronavirus talks collapse | Vaccine official says he'd resign if pressured politically Fauci's DC neighbors put up 'thank you' signs in their yards Cuomo says New York schools can reopen in-person this fall MORE. Both used the national stage to plead with the American public to limit their time outside, wear masks, and act responsibly to stop the pandemic spread. 

We were making progress. At the beginning of the pandemic in the U.S., most governors imposed stay-at-home orders in their respective states. Last month, cases, for the most part, had leveled off or started to decline. 

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Then in April, despite the lack of effective treatments and the continuing search for a vaccine, President TrumpDonald John TrumpJoe Arpaio loses bid for his old position as sheriff Trump brushes off view that Russia denigrating Biden: 'Nobody's been tougher on Russia than I have' Trump tees up executive orders on economy but won't sign yet MORE told governors they would “call their own shots” on reopening. Hot spots like New York proceeded cautiously, increased testing, and ultimately reported a decline in cases and occupancy of ICU beds. Other states dropped all restrictions, opened their bars, beaches, and economies, and not surprisingly, new COVID-19 cases surged in record numbers. States such as Florida, Arizona, and Tennessee are now starting to rethink their approaches.

Recently, in sworn testimony to Congress, Dr. Fauci stated that we could experience an estimated 100,000 cases of coronavirus every day unless we take proactive measures. Perhaps due to pandemic fatigue, his announcement provoked little concern. It’s astonishing that we seem entirely unphased that a mountain of new patients will soon overwhelm our health system.

We are in the midst of a national public health crisis. A crisis of leadership and a failure to communicate. Public health professionals can tell you, now is the time for consistent, truthful communication about how we can beat the virus. 

We need to be able to trust our government, and they must answer the call. That trust is earned when the public sees the right people with the right experience working overtime to keep the country safe. That trust is tested when the administration tries to disband the coronavirus task force in the middle of a pandemic and discontinues its daily televised briefings, curtailing the forward-facing roles of its leading scientific experts, Drs. Birx and Fauci. 

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize that the 50 state approach toward solving the pandemic isn’t working.  Other countries have successfully controlled the spread. Yet today the United States has the dubious honor of reporting 25 percent of the world’s COVID-19 cases when we represent just four percent of the world’s population. Our response has failed because we’ve acted as a collection of 50 separate countries in how we’ve addressed COVID-19. We’ve had more cases and more deaths than any other country in the world. Today Americans continue to be banned from visiting European countries where travelers from other countries, including China where the pandemic started, may soon be welcome. 

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It may have made political sense for President Trump to put 50 different governors in charge of the nation’s reopening. But it wasn’t in the best interest of the health of the nation. Managing a pandemic isn’t a states’ rights issue. This is a national emergency that demands a unified and structured approach led by federal authorities and elected officials. That starts with clear communication and trusted leadership at the very top, something that has been in short supply given the mixed signals from the administration on PPE, testing, mask-wearing, social distancing, and gatherings, to name a few. 

We need to face facts. The virus is thriving because it does not recognize state borders. To re-open the country and control the pandemic, we must have a coordinated national effort.  We need smart, trusted guidance, and we need it now. Outside the civil war, there has never been a time in our history that has tested our ability to work together. It took the federal government to form that union then. It will require that same leadership now. 

Lyndon Haviland, DrPh, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy.