Trump coronavirus travel ban comes under criticism

President Trump’s announcement of a ban on travel from Europe is coming under criticism from experts who say that the focus on travel is misdirected and much more urgent domestic measures are needed to fight the virus. 

The centerpiece of Trump’s high-profile address to the nation on Wednesday night was announcing a ban on travel from Europe for foreign nationals as a way to try to slow the spread of the virus. 

But experts noted that the virus is already spreading across the United States, meaning that stopping travel from Europe, while possibly marginally helpful, is far from the most urgent need. 

The main focus instead, they say, should be on “mitigation” efforts to slow the spread of the virus in the United States and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed with a spike in cases, which is done by canceling large events and taking other steps to avoid crowds where the virus spreads. 

There is also continuing pressure on the administration to ramp up the country’s ability to test and identify the virus. The rollout of testing has been slow and plagued with problems. 

“In two weeks, we will regret wasting time and energy on travel restrictions and wish we focused more on hospital preparation and large scale community mitigation,” tweeted Tom Bossert, Trump’s former homeland security adviser. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top official at the National Institutes of Health, acknowledged at a congressional hearing on Thursday that “it is a failing” that people in the United States cannot easily get tested for coronavirus.  

Trump did give a brief mention to these measures, saying “in general, older Americans should also avoid nonessential travel in crowded areas.”

But he did not put an emphasis or announce new measures on that front. He mainly touted travel restrictions as the answer.

Trump defended his decision in comments from the White House on Thursday at a press event with Ireland Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Ireland was not included in the new restrictions. 

“The key is, you have to have separation. … It goes away. It’s going away. We want it to go away with very, very few deaths. People have, we call it cases. How many cases do you have. Well, relative to other countries we have very few cases.”

He said he did not consult with European leaders before announcing the decision because he needed to act urgently.

“We get along very well with European leaders, but we had to make a decision and I didn’t want to take time. It takes a long time to make the individual calls,” Trump said. 

If U.S. citizens return from Europe and are positive for coronavirus, he said they would be quarantined.

Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development who helped direct the U.S. response to the Ebola crisis, suggested Trump should have called on all U.S. communities to cancel events with more than 50 people. He added that Trump should have applauded the NBA for suspending its season and encouraged others to take similar actions to avoid large gatherings. 

The governor in Washington state, Jay Inslee, on Wednesday moved in that direction, banning events with more than 250 people. 

Experts also called for a more of a focus on increasing hospital capacity so they can avoid being overwhelmed.

“Elective procedures should be postponed for next few months,” tweeted Scott Gottlieb, Trump’s former FDA commissioner. “Hospitals should lower volumes everywhere they can. We need to prepare for an influx of cases.”

House Democrats pressed administration health officials in a closed-door briefing on Thursday morning about the lack of testing capacity. They cited numbers tweeted by Gottlieb, showing that labs’ testing capacity is only about 17,000 patients per day, despite administration officials touting that they have sent out enough kits for more than 1 million tests.

Administration officials declined to give a number in the briefing for what the country’s testing capacity is, but did not dispute Gottlieb’s estimates, lawmakers said. 

“There is no precise number, so I think they’re afraid to say a number because then they’ll be held to it,” said Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, leaving the briefing.  

He cited a shortage of a key component of tests, known as “reagent,” as another limiting factor. Asked if the administration should be doing more to make tests available, Walden said, “Sure, and I think they are.”

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) warned while leaving the briefing that the United States could be headed toward the crisis in Italy, as opposed to the relative success story of South Korea.

“We are completely blowing the ability to be South Korea versus Italy,” he said. 

“I think they have numbers they’re not sharing because the reality is we are woefully inadequate at how many people we can test a day,” Pocan added. 

Dr. Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association, said the European travel ban could be “useful” in limiting the arrival of infected people. But he added in an email that the virus “is already here so how much it will help is limited.”

“I wish he had focused more on how we manage the outbreak here,” Benjamin wrote. “How to manage the most at risk populations, and how to support them as they lock down, etc. A missed opportunity.”

Gottlieb warned on Twitter that action is urgently needed. 

“Every day we delay hard decisions, every day leaders don’t demand collective action, the depth of epidemic will be larger,” he wrote. “We must act now. We have narrow window to avert a worse outcome. The virus is firmly rooted in our cities. We’re losing time.”

Brett Samuels contributed to this story. 

Tags Coronavirus Donald Trump Greg Walden Jay Inslee Mark Pocan
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