Former President Donald Trump's administration failed to heed critical early warnings about the severity of the virus and provided poor leadership as it strove to "avoid bad news," creating a situation that led to more deaths than were necessary, according to a sweeping report released Thursday by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., on how the nation responded to the COVID-19 outbreak.
"It was very bad … when some of the information was coming out (from health officials), the White House basically stepped in and said, 'Stop talking,'" Peters said on a call Wednesday previewing the report. "There's no question that political decisions were being made and those decisions were unfortunately considered more important than what was being put out by public health officials."
The 242-page report — prepared by Democratic investigators for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee chaired by Peters — also said years of inaction by administrations representing both parties in preparing for an eventual pandemic and overreliance on foreign supply chains for medical equipment played a role in the poor response. So did contradictory messages, the withholding of information from the public and the inevitable introduction of partisan politics by the White House's involvement, the report said.
Congress, too, should have done more to prepare, shoring up emergency funds that were all but empty, mandating spending on masks and other medical equipment in emergency stockpiles and bolstering domestic production of supplies in the years ahead of the outbreak. "We share some of the blame here," Peters said.
Comparing the failure to that in the governmental response to Hurricane Katrina 15 years earlier, the report's authors said: "As of November 2022, over six and a half million people worldwide have died directly from COVID-19, with more than one million lives lost in the United States alone. Many of these deaths and much of the economic fallout could have been prevented."
More than 40,000 Michiganders have died of the virus in the last three years, according to statistics put out by the state last week.
The report also included recommendations, including calling for increased investments to stockpile protective equipment like masks and respirators, modernizing public health surveillance systems, untangling bureaucratic thickets to streamline response plans and establishing rules to ensure public health messages from the federal government are "based on reliable scientific analysis and data." Peters said he will be working on future reports and legislation, including to help domestic production of needed materials, in the months to come.
"We have to learn from the mistakes that were made, and clearly there were many," he said, echoing a sentence in the report: "The American people should not have to suffer through a crisis of this magnitude for the federal government to ensure our nation is adequately prepared to address public health threats."
The report wasn't all negative, singling out Operation Warp Speed — by which the Trump administration greatly accelerated the development, testing and authorization of coronavirus vaccines — as a notable success.
But it also said systemic problems that greeted the outset of the pandemic remain, including inadequate funding, supply chain issues and more. "These problems have been flagged by experts and oversight agencies for years, yet have been largely overlooked by all branches of the federal government," the report said.
In preparing the report, committee investigators conducted over 90 interviews with doctors, academics and health experts, as well as former White House officials and others from across the federal government, including with Dr. Deborah Birx, who was Trump's coronavirus response coordinator, and Dr. Robert Redfield, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They also combed through more than 70,000 pages of documents, including presidential directives, agency guidance, preparedness plans and after-action reports.
Some of the findings:
Peters and the report also noted many other problems, including that it wasn't until mid-March 2020 that the federal government signed contracts for the manufacture of personal protective equipment (PPEs), despite the shortage in the stockpile and that it would take two more months before they were produced in large numbers.
Other issues included the Trump administration switching which agencies would lead the response, including, in March, designating the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to do so, despite its never having planned to lead a pandemic response; as well as antiquated rules that, in some cases, kept health officials from getting data from hospitals in a timely manner. Decisions that were made to parcel out PPEs based on population rather than community need also were scrutinized.
Peters was among those, he said, who at the time was fighting to get more materials from the national stockpile sent to Detroit as cases spiked, when PPEs were being sent to areas with virtually no cases.
"I was in the middle of this and it drove me and my colleagues crazy," he said. "You send the resources to where the illness is the greatest and the need is the greatest. That didn’t happen and it’s unacceptable."
Investigators also singled out how the Trump administration responded to the emerging threat, noting that even though the CDC, the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security knew through public sources of the threat from the virus circulating in China by late December 2019 and early January 2020, not enough was done quickly to curtail the spread into the U.S. and track cases.
While the Chinese government withheld information on the severity of the virus, U.S. officials had access to reports of new hospitals being hastily built in that country, video of bodies in hospital hallways covered in sheets and multiple citywide mask mandates and lockdowns. Trump restricted travel from China in February 2020, but by then, the report said, the virus had begun to spread worldwide, including into the U.S.
Health officials, it said, “recognized what the Trump administration did not: that the gravity and extent of the unfolding threat would likely require rapid and widespread interventions beyond containment.” And despite evidence of the spread among people who had no symptoms, the administration continued for some time to adopt a public message that the risk from the virus was low.
"The early months of 2020 were flooded with a series of missteps and missed opportunities," the report said. "Throughout January and February 2020, CDC’s surveillance missed at least half of the cases that came into the country, resulting in false assurances to the American people that there was no community spread in the U.S.”
There were other complications as well: the CDC failed to roll out a usable test quickly enough, partially because of regulatory obstacles and a lack of engagement with the private sector, leading to a situation where, by the end of February 2020 — when tens of thousands of Americans had likely contracted the virus — fewer than 1,200 had been tested.
Meanwhile, supply chain issues, export restrictions and demand quickly resulted in shortages of needed medical supplies, including surgical masks, gowns and gloves.
Then there were clear problems with how the federal government provided information to the public, with the report noting: “Contradictory and inadequate communications left Americans confused and unclear on what to do to minimize their risk.”
In the early months of the pandemic there was widespread confusion among health officials about whether masks should be used by the general public or conserved for medical practitioners, even though there was evidence from other countries that they could help slow the spread, along with social distancing. But by not communicating the reasons behind those contradictory messages, some experts told the investigators, public trust was undermined.
When, in April 2020, the CDC issued guidance recommending people wear face masks, Trump, who was in the middle of a reelection campaign, said at the same briefing, "It's voluntary. You don’t have to do it… I don’t think I’m going to be doing it," further complicating the message. The former CDC head, Redfield, called the president's message in the face of the guidance "disappointing."
Meanwhile, the CDC — which wanted to communicate more directly with the public on recommendations and the reasons behind them — was largely muzzled following a public briefing on Feb. 25, 2020, at which officials said COVID-19 would result in a "significant disruption" to everyday life and that "it’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more of a question of exactly when." After that, the White House required approval of all briefings, media requests and guidance documents, resulting, the report said, "in lengthy delays of critical health guidance and restricting CDC’s ability to share information directly with the public." From March through June 2020, the CDC was kept from conducting public briefings, despite multiple requests.
Dr. Anne Schuchat, who was a deputy director at the CDC and later led the agency's efforts, told investigators there was an "avoid bad news bias” on the part of senior Trump administration officials and a “lack of understanding of optimal risk communications — that sharing even bad news is helpful and reassuring” and “not sharing bad news increases suspicion and distrust.”
Ultimately, the Trump administration didn't issue its first wide-scale attempt to slow community spread by avoiding large group settings until March 16; and even that came within days of Trump and others in his administration, including his surgeon general, insisting that the risk from COVID-19 remained "low."
"In the months that followed, the president repeatedly urged the use of unproven treatments likehydroxychloriquine and, at one briefing, suggested ultraviolet light or disinfectant couldsomehow be used inside the body," the report noted.
Peters made clear in remarks to reporters that not all the blame should be on Trump or his administration. "There are no questions there were systemic problems that were unaddressed for decades," he said.
But he said politics needs to be taken out of the response to such crises. "Let's get past that and let the facts decide what we're doing and what we're learning," Peters said.