US President Donald Trump looks on prior to departing on Marine One from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, on March 3, 2020, as he travels to National Institutes of Health for a tour and briefing on the coronavirus. Photo: AFP

Panic returned to the US stock market on Thursday as the federal government fumbled in the face of a health crisis of unknown proportions, and President Donald Trump appeared to downplay the scale of the problem in a Fox News interview. Someone should tell the president that reality shows don’t go as scripted when the studio is on fire.

Meanwhile, no one in the United States knows how fast Covid-19 has spread, where it is spread, or how it is spreading. The nationwide shortage of test kits has become an election-year issue, with Democratic officials denouncing the Trump Administration, and President Trump blaming regulatory decisions by the Obama Administration. That is a fight that the incumbent president only can lose: the incumbent president always will take the fall for a perceived fumble in a national emergency. The Obama-era policy, which required hospitals and private laboratories to submit test procedures to lengthy Food and Drug Administration (FDA) review, was an obstacle to rapid testing. But it wasn’t rescinded until February 29, six weeks after Washington State authorities believe that the first case appeared in that state.

Federal officials, meanwhile, are backtracking on promises of a rapid response.

Earlier this week FDA chief Stephen Hahn told Congress that a million test kits would be in use by Friday, but Republican senators warned Thursday that it would take much longer for testing to get underway. “There won’t be a million people to get a test by the end of the week,” Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida told Bloomberg News. “It’s way smaller than that. And still, at this point, it’s still through public health departments.”

Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma told Bloomberg, “By the end of the week they’re getting them out to the mail. It’s going to take time to be able to get them, receive them, re-verify them and then be able to put them into use.” 

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) today announced that it is no longer reporting the number of individuals tested for Covid-19 infection, because state and local governments have taken over most of the testing. As of March 5 the CDC reported just 49 cases under investigation, explaining on its website, “CDC is no longer reporting the number of persons under investigation (PUIs) that have been tested, as well as PUIs that have tested negative. Now that states are testing and reporting their own results, CDC’s numbers are not representative of all testing being done nationwide.”

The US agency added, “In the event of a discrepancy between CDC cases and cases reported by state and local public health officials, data reported by states should be considered the most up to date.”

The CDC added that it has no up-to-date national statistics on coronavirus infections. “State and local public health departments are now testing and publicly reporting their cases. In the event of a discrepancy between CDC cases and cases reported by state and local public health officials, data reported by states should be considered the most up to date,” the agency said.

According to the website ProPublica, the CDC made matters worse by insisting on developing its own test kit, rather than use kits from Europe – and then producing a test kit that didn’t work. “As the highly infectious coronavirus jumped from China to country after country in January and February, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lost valuable weeks that could have been used to track its possible spread in the United States because it insisted upon devising its own test,” the website reported February 28.

WHO guidelines

Even worse, “The federal agency shunned the World Health Organization test guidelines used by other countries and set out to create a more complicated test of its own that could identify a range of similar viruses. But when it was sent to labs across the country in the first week of February, it didn’t work as expected. The CDC test correctly identified Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. But in all but a handful of state labs, it falsely flagged the presence of the other viruses in harmless samples.”

Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, told ProPublica, “The basic tenet of public health is to know the situation so you can deal with it appropriately. If you don’t look, you won’t find cases.” Lipsitch noted that in China’s Guangdong Province, health authorities tested 300,000 people in fever clinics in order to identify only 420 positive cases.

President Trump meanwhile appeared to dismiss public concerns about the epidemic in a March 4 interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity.

“Well, I think the 3.4% [mortality rate is really a false number,” the president said. “Now, and this is just my hunch, and – but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this. Because a lot people will have this and it’s very mild. They’ll get better very rapidly. They don’t even see a doctor. They don’t even call a doctor. You never hear about those people. So you can’t put them down in the category of the overall population in terms of this corona flu and – or virus. So you just can’t do that. So if, you know, we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better, just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work – some of them go to work but they get better.”

He continued, “When you do have a death – like you had in the state of Washington, like you had one in California, believe you had one in New York – you know, all of a sudden, it seems like 3 or 4%, which is a very high number, as opposed to a fraction of 1%,” Trump added. “But again, they don’t know about the easy cases because the easy cases don’t go to the hospital. They don’t report to doctors or the hospital, in many cases. So I think that that [death rate] number is very high. I think the number, personally, I would say the number is way under 1%.”

President attacked

News commentators attacked the president for appearing to encourage people with mild symptoms to go to work. Trump retorted in a March 5 tweet, “I NEVER said people that are feeling sick should go to work. This is just more Fake News and disinformation put out by the Democrats, in particular MSDNC. Comcast covers the CoronaVirus situation horribly, only looking to do harm to the incredible & successful effort being made!”

Short of test kits, Washington State health authorities have asked people with mild symptoms not to come to public clinics, because there is nothing that the clinics can do for them immediately. Microsoft, Google and Amazon have told their Seattle-area employees to work from home.

Lack of basic information, hesitant action, conflicting statements and the failure to acknowledge previous blunders contribute to the panic registered on the US equity market. In an election year, it really doesn’t matter whose fault it was. The buck stops at the president’s desk, in Harry Truman’s celebrated saying – but never more so than during a public health crisis.