Experts warn of worsening pandemic unless Trump takes action
Health experts are warning that the current surge in coronavirus cases will get far worse unless the Trump administration takes aggressive action in the next few months.
Significant time and money will need to be invested to ensure states are ready to widely distribute a vaccine as soon as one becomes available, and to build trust back into a public health system that’s been scarred by politicization.
Democratic nominee Joe Biden leads the Electoral College and looks like the favorite to get to 270 votes, but regardless of the outcome, the current administration will be in charge through Jan. 20.
Yet even as COVID-19 infections spike to record levels, experts are concerned that the administration’s response will be tied to President Trump’s fate.
“I think the current administration and the current Congress need to take some steps quickly because this disease is worse now than it has ever been in this country,” said Mark Rosenberg, an epidemiologist who ran the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control from 1994 to 1999.
“If we don’t get a clear set of policies, if we don’t have clear goals, and if we don’t have the trust of all the people, then the death will rise to extraordinary levels, and the infection rates will multiply. So the next few months are crucial,” Rosenberg said.
More than 230,000 people in the U.S. have died from the coronavirus, and cases and hospitalizations are still rising. According to the COVID Tracking Project, new cases rose 20 percent across the country just this past week, and the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 topped 52,000.
Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the public needs to make sure members of Congress and the administration do not drop the ball, and if there is changeover, the transition process is not undermined.
“I know a lot of people have a lot of hopes on a Biden administration fixing things, but we still have a couple of months of the Trump administration where we can’t let things unravel. We still need to continue to pour resources into testing, tracing and isolating,” Adalja said.
“I do think that there’s a danger during the lame duck period that people may become complacent, and we can’t because we know the virus is not going to. We have to not allow any of the programs that are in place now to fade away, because we can’t afford to lose any time with getting a vaccine,” Adalja added.
President Trump has repeatedly dismissed the threat of the virus, mocking those wearing masks and holding events where people failed to physically distance. His closing message for the campaign was that the virus was under control, and the U.S. would be turning the corner soon.
Trump himself contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, as did many of his aides in the West Wing.
The administration to date has largely focused its efforts on developing a vaccine, rather than trying to contain the virus.
But states are pleading for additional money and guidance from Congress and the administration to build the infrastructure needed to widely distribute the vaccine.
If the current timeline from drug manufacturers holds true, an initial vaccine could be ready for limited distribution in the early part of next year. That means the system for transportation, storage and administering the shots needs to be set up now.
“We are going to need some more resources from Congress. States don’t have the funding to do the kind of scale and speed that we need for rolling out this vaccine,” said Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO).
The administration has invested $10 billion in developing a COVID-19 vaccine through Operation Warp Speed, but states have been allocated only $200 million for distribution.
Plescia said he understands lawmakers may not want to spend additional money during a lame-duck period, but the pandemic is an unprecedented situation, and he hopes the growing death toll will push leaders to act with urgency now, no matter which party will be in control next year.
Plescia said even if there’s a void of federal leadership at the top, he thinks the career health scientists and even some of the political officials will be able to help get through to a potential transition.
Micheal Mina, an infectious diseases expert at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, said he hopes the election was an “inflection point” for leaders to refocus on ways to slow the spread, because the country can’t afford to continue down the current path.
“At the moment we have painted ourselves into a corner, I’m not gonna lie. We have very, very few options at the moment,” Mina said.
But he said there’s no reason why the current Congress and administration can’t focus on funding public health through existing legislation like the House-passed HEROES Act, to control the virus through frequent testing.
“I know that there are people in the administration who absolutely want to do good by the United States population and want to help combat this virus with strategy and with science,” Mina said.
“I’m hoping that [when] the election is over, regardless of who wins that people aren’t going to be trying to get votes and making decisions based purely on that. And so maybe there will be more willingness,” Mina said.