There are three moments this year that determined the scale of the COVID-19 catastrophe in the United States, argues New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright in a sweeping, searing look at the country’s year spent fighting (and failing) against COVID-19. The magazine is devoting an entire double-issue to cataloguing those missteps and the many other mistakes made by officials that set us on a path towards hundreds of thousands of deaths from the disease.
The first happened January 3, when Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), spoke with his Chinese counterpart about a new respiratory virus. Redfield wanted to send a CDC team to China, but was turned down. Instead, the CDC was kept out of China, and the agency was slow to understand the risk the virus posed.
“Redfield is convinced that, had CDC specialists visited China in early January, they would have learned exactly what the world was facing,” Wright writes. “The new pathogen was a coronavirus, and as such it was thought to be only modestly contagious, like its cousin the SARS virus. This assumption was wrong.”
Next came the problems with the coronavirus test kits developed by the CDC. They didn’t pass quality control checks, but were sent out to labs anyway. The failure meant the US spent the month of February essentially flying blind, with too few tests to know how much coronavirus was already in the country. That had a domino effect on other elements of the early response:
Without the test kits, contact tracing was stymied; without contact tracing, there was no obstacle in the contagion’s path. America never once had enough reliable tests distributed across the nation, with results available within two days. By contrast, South Korea, thanks to universal public insurance and lessons learned from a 2015 outbreak of MERS, provided free, rapid testing and invested heavily in contact tracing, which was instrumental in shutting down chains of infection. The country has recorded some fifty thousand cases of COVID. The U.S. now reports more than four times that number per day.
The third turning point was masks. Research showed that they could help slow the spread of COVID-19, but the CDC was slow to recommend them. By the time the agency said everyone should wear masks, they’d been politicized by President Donald Trump and others.
The C.D.C.’s sudden reversal, Redfield admitted to me, was awkward: “When you have to change the message, the second message doesn’t always stick.” Worse, when the President announced the new mask advisory, he stressed, “This is voluntary,” adding, “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.”
Wright outlines other failures: Trump’s refusal to direct federal aid to governors, for example, and the hydroxychloroquine debacle. He also touches on the one bright spot — the scientific triumph of developing vaccines at record speed — but avoids any impulse to make the the scale of that success equal to that of the tragedy. Two authorized vaccines that are extremely effective at preventing COVID-19 within a year is nearly unbelievable, but more than 300,000 people have died from the pandemic and the toll continues to rise.
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