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Senate report spotlights systemic problems behind early COVID response missteps

From the earliest days of the COVID-19 outbreak in China to the first surge of infections around the U.S. in 2020, a new report penned by Senate Democrats, released Thursday, blasted the initial efforts to curb the virus as “one of the worst public health responses in U.S. history.”

Gleaned from interviews and documents from key former officials across the administration, the 242-page report from Democrats on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is just the latest to try and shed new light on territory already well-trodden by a cascade of retrospectives. 

Along with some federal agencies’ own internal reckonings, the committee joins a crowded field including the National Academies, the Government Accountability Office, and fellow Democrats in the House that have sought to retrace pandemic missteps.

While some of the details are new, the report’s authors acknowledge several of their ultimate findings stem from systemic problems known long before President Donald Trump took office.

“Many of the problems identified as part of the initial federal response are longstanding and remain unaddressed. For decades, insufficient funding across multiple administrations has impaired federal agencies’ readiness and response capabilities, reducing sustainable investments in public health preparedness,” write the report’s authors.

In addition to calling for “sustainable multi-year funding” for public health preparedness and response, the committee’s report also urges restructuring and reforms to clarify chains of command. It also highlights gaps in federal authority to resolve supply chain issues and collect data about the disease.

The report does not offer a price tag for implementing all of their recommendations. Senator Gary Peters, the committee’s chair, said that new legislation would need to be drafted to implement some of their recommendations. 

“We have to learn from the mistakes that were made, and clearly there were many. There was a loss of life that should have never occurred, had we been properly prepared, and more importantly, had it been executed with greater competence than what we saw,” Peters told reporters on Wednesday ahead of its release.

Peters, a Michigan Democrat, had tasked committee staff to probe the federal government’s efforts from late 2019 through March 2020.

Peters said the committee planned to continue to issue reports investigating later stages of the pandemic response. He also welcomed other efforts to examine the federal government’s COVID-19 efforts, including a proposed 9/11-style commission.

“Clearly we have to continue to move forward, and you will see future reports coming out as to what happened during the pandemic, but you’ll also see specific actions. I’m not a guy that wants to have a report and then it collects dust on the shelf,” Peters added.

“No such intelligence” and chaotic communication

Beyond the Department of Homeland Security, which the committee typically exercises oversight over, the report also examined federal efforts across the intelligence community, Defense Department, and Department of Health and Human Services.

The report documents blindspots from the earliest moments of the outbreak across those departments. 

For example, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the military, Homeland Security and intelligence communities all told the committee that no classified intelligence alerted them to the growing threat posed by the virus as it began to spread in China in late 2019, the report says. 

Agencies all heard of the outbreak through the same infamous news report translated publicly on the ProMED email list on Dec. 30 of that year, the committee’s report says, and were slow to grasp the threat.

“DOD also told the Committee news reports’ assertions that such warnings were conveyed through an intelligence report to the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, the National Security Council, the White House, and the President’s Daily Brief were also incorrect. No such intelligence product or briefing exists,” the report says.

As infections swelled, an already confusing chain of command was worsened by hasty changes to who was in charge and attempts by the White House to wrest control.

Images obtained by the committee help illustrate the challenges officials faced, like a messy whiteboard photographed by a Federal Emergency Management Agency official as they tried to chart out roles across the federal government. Text messages between Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and his deputy illustrate the lopsided decision-making structure, when FEMA replaced HHS at the helm of the response.

“Again just to be clear from now on, I will give you suggestions or ideas and clear barriers here but anything I say is not an order. All subject to FEMA processes,” Azar texted on March 20 to Robert Kadlec, his Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.

Some disagreements still persist among federal staff years later, according to the interview answers published by the committee.

One such dispute within the CDC, according to the committee, focuses on problems with coronavirus test kits the agency produced in the early days of the U.S. outbreak. Some agency scientists disagree with the “public stance” blaming contamination and poor design for the tests’ failures.

“While public reporting suggests a consensus on the cause of CDC’s test kit failure, information obtained by the Committee indicates there were and continue to be conflicting internal accounts of not only what went wrong, but also the reasons for those failures,” the report states.

The report also calls out some successes, like the initiative known as Operation Warp Speed, which worked with the private sector to develop vaccines in record time. And it praises the dedication of frontline health care workers who “saved countless lives.”

Some reforms underway

The report’s recommendations come at a time when the Biden administration has already begun to ramp up its own reform plans.

Some changes, like an elevated role for the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response to manage supplies of emergency vaccines and drugs, already debuted in response to the global outbreak of mpox, formerly known as monkeypox, earlier this year. 

The CDC is also in the midst of a sweeping internal reorganization ordered by its director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, earlier this year. 

At a recent meeting of one of the agency’s outside advisory panels, CDC officials said a reorganization plan from strike teams formed for an internal “Moving Forward” initiative are being finalized over the next few days. 

“We are currently reviewing the initial proposals. We hope to have more of this solidified by the end of this month, and to begin further implementation by early January,” Jim Macrae, one of the federal officials tapped by Walensky to spearhead the reforms, said Wednesday.

However, federal officials have said many changes they have sought will require funding and legislation from Congress.

“I have been doing a lot of work on the Hill. I was there today, to say there’s this assumption that we have those authorities,”  Walensky said Wednesday at an event hosted by The Milken Institute.

“There have been numerous pieces written about ‘CDC is not sharing the data on X.’ And I just say, ‘boy, would I love to share the data on X, I’d love to have the data on X so I can share it with you,'” Walensky said.

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