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“Pence Is Not a Medical Expert”: Is the Trump Admin Ready to Stop a U.S. Coronavirus Pandemic?

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The coronavirus disease that was first diagnosed in China’s Hubei province has now spread to at least 47 countries and every continent except Antarctica. The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak an international health emergency. President Trump sought to play down the threat from coronavirus and announced Vice President Mike Pence would be his point person to coordinate government efforts to prevent a widespread outbreak. As Trump spoke, a new milestone in the novel coronavirus outbreak was reported, in a possible example of community spread: A person was diagnosed with the virus in Northern California who had not traveled to any of the affected regions of the world, nor had known contact with anyone else who did. We speak with Laurie Garrett, former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer. She is the author of several books, including “Ebola: Story of an Outbreak,” “The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance” and “Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The coronavirus disease that was first diagnosed in China’s Hubei province has now spread to at least 47 countries and every continent except Antarctica. The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak an international health emergency. Nearly 3,000 people have died so far. More than 81,000 have now been infected with the virus, that causes the respiratory disease COVID-19. To contain the spread of the coronavirus in Japan, where the number of cases has reached 200, today the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for schools to close.

PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE: [translated] I request all elementary, middle and high schools and special needs schools to be temporarily closed from March 2nd until spring vacation.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Japan says the 2020 Summer Olympics are still scheduled to take place in the capital Tokyo. In South Korea, the number of coronavirus cases has passed 1,700, making it the largest outbreak outside of China. At least one U.S. soldier stationed at a base in the area has tested positive for the virus, and the U.S. and South Korea have called off joint military exercises. This comes as the government of Iran says at least 245 people have been infected and 26 have died, but experts say the toll is likely much higher. Meanwhile, officials in Kuwait reported 43 new cases, and Saudi Arabia has taken the unprecedented step of barring Muslim pilgrims from entering the country to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Here in the United States, President Trump downplayed the threat from coronavirus and announced Vice President Mike Pence would be his point person to coordinate government efforts to prevent a widespread outbreak.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Because of all we’ve done, the risk to the American people remains very low. We have the greatest experts in the world, really in the world, right here. … We’re ready to adapt, and we’re ready to do whatever we have to, as the disease spreads, if it spreads.

AMY GOODMAN: As Trump spoke at his White House news conference, a new milestone in the coronavirus outbreak was reported. In a possible example of community spread, a person was diagnosed with the virus in Northern California who had not traveled to any of the affected regions of the world, nor had known contact with anyone else who did. Officials say they don’t know how the person was exposed and have begun tracing the person’s contacts in order to determine how they got sick. On Wednesday morning, Trump tweeted, quote, “Low Ratings Fake News MSDNC (Comcast) & CNN are doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible. Likewise their incompetent Do Nothing Democrat comrades are all talk, no action. USA in great shape!” President Trump tweeted, misspelling the word “coronavirus.”

This is Democratic Congressmember Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts questioning Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar Wednesday.

REP. JOE KENNEDY: Mr. Secretary, I don’t want to panic over this, either. The stock market’s crashing. He’s trying to stop a stock market. He’s not trying — he’s outright contradicting everything that you all have just said. Outright contradiction.

HHS SECRETARY ALEX AZAR: I think he’s expressing confidence in —

REP. JOE KENNEDY: With no medical basis for it. That’s what you’ve just explained to us. Come on, sir.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar: No, there’s — he’s expressing that there — he’s expressing that the American people need to take a breath here, that there’s no change to anyone’s daily life from this, that the country has a plan. We have pandemic plans.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta is warning the true number of U.S. coronavirus cases might be higher than reported because test kits sent out nationwide earlier this month included a faulty component.

To break down the news on the outbreak worldwide and here in this country, we’re joined here in New York by Laurie Garrett, former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, author of several books, including Ebola: Story of an Outbreak, The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance and Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health. In a recent piece for Foreign Policy, she wrote, “Trump Has Sabotaged America’s Coronavirus Response.” And she has another piece, “How China’s Incompetence Endangered the World.”

Laurie, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.

LAURIE GARRETT: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the first news conference President Trump has held at the White House as he appointed — he wouldn’t call him the czar, but as he appointed the vice president, Pence, as the person, the point person, on dealing with the coronavirus.

LAURIE GARRETT: Well, obviously Pence needed some job besides Space Force, so now he has something to do in the White House. But all joking aside, Pence is not a medical expert, and he certainly is not someone who’s demonstrated particularly great amount of respect for science. When he was governor of the state of Indiana, the opioid crisis started in southern Indiana. And suddenly people were injecting opioids. He went to his god and came back and told the Legislature that he did not believe that any human being should receive sterile syringes to assist them in being a drug addict. His own Legislature countered him; he vetoed. Countered, vetoed. Meanwhile, according to a study published by Yale University, at least 250 people got infected with HIV as a result of this crazy policy.

AMY GOODMAN: And he also, of course, defunded Planned Parenthood, leading the movement in Congress. And they had the one HIV testing site in the area. And it was the Indiana model that President Trump cited in saying that he was qualified to lead this effort.

LAURIE GARRETT: Exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, let’s talk about what’s happening here. While it is said that the U.S. has far fewer cases of coronavirus than anywhere else, in fact, there is almost no testing that’s being done.

LAURIE GARRETT: Well, you know, we can’t say that we don’t have a lot of cases. And the last time I looked at the count, we had tested 456 people in the entire United States. To put that in comparison, in Seoul, South Korea, alone, they’ve tested 35,000. Now, you’re not going to find cases if you’re testing 456 people out of 260 million Americans. You’re going to miss quite a number.

What we should be doing right at this moment — the most urgent thing we should be doing — is testing every single pneumonia patient that is hospitalized, because if there’s likely to be a sneak-through of this epidemic, it’s going to come through as a pneumonia patient. It’s going to be diagnosed as flu or some other cause. And it’s actually going to be this coronavirus, and COVID-19 will break out in the hospital ward. This is what we’ve seen all over the world so far, is these outbreaks really explode when they hit one of two things: a religious site, where you have large concentrations of people coming in for a religious festival of some sort, or a hospital. And if the index of suspicion isn’t very, very high among the healthcare workers —

AMY GOODMAN: Or a cruise ship.

LAURIE GARRETT: Well, a cruise ship, that’s a whole — that’s just a Petri dish. But if the rate is — if the healthcare workers aren’t really on their toes, really alert, thinking “what if,” and they don’t have the right protective gear, then as they examine that patient, they become infected. And so, this is our problem right now.

Now, this particular case in Northern California is very worrying, because the individual lived in a rural area, was not a traveler, didn’t know any travelers, was a local worker of some sort — we don’t know a lot of details — 61-year-old male, and was in various health facilities getting misdiagnosed. And it was the health providers themselves who were saying to the Public Health of California, which was in turn saying it to CDC in Atlanta, “We want this person tested for the coronavirus. We think that’s what this is.” And the CDC said, “No, it doesn’t look like it,” and didn’t do a test.

AMY GOODMAN: On Capitol Hill, lawmakers grilled senior administration officials over their response to the crisis. This is Louisiana Republican Senator John Kennedy, who on Tuesday blasted the acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf for struggling to produce basic facts about the coronavirus outbreak.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY: You’re supposed to keep us safe.

DHS SECRETARY CHAD WOLF: My budget supports the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY: You’re the secretary of homeland security.

DHS SECRETARY CHAD WOLF: Yes, sir.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY: And you can’t tell me if we have enough respirators.

DHS SECRETARY CHAD WOLF: What I would tell you is that the budget, my budget, our operations are focused not only on the men and women of DHS, making sure they’re protected to do their jobs, to screen individuals coming in. We’re working with HHS, CDC

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY: You don’t know.

DHS SECRETARY CHAD WOLF: — and their budgets —

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY: You don’t know the answer, do you?

DHS SECRETARY CHAD WOLF: — to ensure that they have enough medical equipment.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY: Do we have enough face masks?

DHS SECRETARY CHAD WOLF: We — for the Department of Homeland Security, we do.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY: I’m asking for the Department of Homeland Security.

DHS SECRETARY CHAD WOLF: Are you looking —

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY: I’m asking for the American people.

DHS SECRETARY CHAD WOLF: For the — for the entire American public?

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY: Yes.

DHS SECRETARY CHAD WOLF: No. I would say probably not.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY: OK. How short are we?

DHS SECRETARY CHAD WOLF: I don’t have that number offhand, Senator. I will get that for you.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY: OK. But I want to be sure I understand. Somebody — 

DHS SECRETARY CHAD WOLF: Yes, sir.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY: — is doing modeling —

DHS SECRETARY CHAD WOLF: Yes, sir.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY: — on how many cases we’re anticipating.

DHS SECRETARY CHAD WOLF: Yes, sir.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY: You’re just not aware of —

DHS SECRETARY CHAD WOLF: You’re asking me a number of medical questions —

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY: I’m asking you questions —

DHS SECRETARY CHAD WOLF: — that CDC and HHS are focusing on.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY: — because you’re secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and you’re supposed to keep us safe.

DHS SECRETARY CHAD WOLF: Yes, sir.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY: And you need to know the answers to these questions.

DHS SECRETARY CHAD WOLF: And —

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY: How far away are we from getting a vaccine?

DHS SECRETARY CHAD WOLF: And — several months.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY: Well, that’s not what we just heard testimony about.

DHS SECRETARY CHAD WOLF: OK.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY: Who’s on first here?

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was the Republican Louisiana Senator John Kennedy questioning the head of homeland security, Chad Wolf. Laurie Garrett?

LAURIE GARRETT: Pretty abysmal situation. Where we are right now is that everybody is recognizing, oops, it was a big mistake by the Trump administration to obliterate the entire infrastructure of pandemic response that the Obama administration had created. Why did he do it? Well, it certainly wasn’t about the money, because it wasn’t a heavily funded program. It was certainly because it was Obama’s program.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain. You’re talking about the unit within the Centers for Disease Control.

LAURIE GARRETT: No, we’re talking about something much vaster than that. It was a special division inside the National Security Council, a special division inside of the Department of Homeland Security — that bozo was talking from — and collaborating centers in HHS, headquarters in Washington, the Office of Global Health Affairs, and the Commerce Department, Treasury Department. But what Obama understood, dealing with Ebola in 2014, is that any American response had to be an all-of-government response, that there were so many agencies overlapping, and they all had a little piece of the puzzle in the case of a pandemic.

Just do this mental exercise with me, Amy. If we get to the situation where we’re anything like what’s going on in China right now, then our Department of Commerce, our Department of Transportation and our department of USDA would have to collaborate to get food deliveries all over America so that parts of America don’t starve. And you could see in China convoys, hundreds of 18-wheeler vehicles completely full of food, coming into Wuhan every single day. Do we have the capacity to coordinate that?

What the Obama administration realized was that you can’t corral multiple agencies and things from private sector as well as public sector to come to the aid of America, unless you have some one person in charge who’s really the manager of it all. And in his case, it was Ron Klain, who had worked under Vice President Biden. And he was designated, with an office inside the White House, to give orders and coordinate all these various things.

Well, that was all eliminated. It’s gone. And now they’re hastily trying to recreate something. And last night there were many names tossed around about who he was going to appoint as head of the response. He had previously gone on the record, President Trump, saying, “I have great faith in Secretary Azar, and my HHS secretary will be in charge.” And we’re told, from multiple sources, that right up until they got on stage for that press briefing, Azar thought he was in charge. And then the president says, “And here’s my good friend Mike Pence, and he’s taking charge.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, there are reports that Trump was very angry that Azar had even raised the concerns he did publicly, because Trump was majorly concerned about the markets, and that he had brought people into the United States from the cruise ship.

LAURIE GARRETT: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: They were Americans. And they were, as you were saying, sitting in a Petri dish, that cruise ship of thousands. Hundreds of people got infected, even when they were in lockdown, which —

LAURIE GARRETT: We’re approaching a thousand. It may very well end up that half of the crew and passengers will be infected before that story finishes playing out.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to President Trump addressing reporters Wednesday night at the White House press briefing room. One of the reporters questioned Trump on his comments about how former President Obama handled the Ebola outbreak in 2014.

REPORTER: I want to talk to you about 2014. During the Ebola crisis, you said you wanted a, quote-unquote, “full travel ban.” You said Obama was a, quote-unquote, “stubborn dope” not for doing it. You said, “Just stop the flights dummies!” You also said it was a, quote-unquote, ”TOTAL JOKE” to appoint someone to lead the Ebola response with, quote, “zero experience in the medical field.” Now you’ve appointed Mike Pence.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They listened to a lot of what I had to say.

REPORTER: I did.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And they —

REPORTER: So, how does that square with what you’re doing now?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They listened to a lot — well, because this is a much different problem than Ebola. Ebola, you disintegrated, especially at the beginning. They’ve made a lot of progress now on Ebola. But with Ebola — we were talking about it before — you disintegrated. You got Ebola, that was it. This one is different, much different. This is a flu. This is like a flu. And this is a much different situation than Ebola. But — and we’re working on Ebola right now, by the way. We’re working on certain areas of the Congo. The Congo has Ebola, and caused largely by the fact that they have war and people can’t get there. We can now treat Ebola. In that — at that time, it was infectious, and you couldn’t treat it. Nobody knew anything about it. Nobody had ever heard of anything like this. So it’s a much different situation.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was President Trump. Laurie Garrett, you wrote a book about Ebola. You wrote Ebola: The Story of an Outbreak. But also now they’re trying to take money from the Ebola budget, dealing with Ebola, not to mention slash the CDC budget. His latest budget that went to Congress was cutting health services in this country.

LAURIE GARRETT: Yeah. Well, you know, we’ve gotten used to Trump being a pile of contradictions and misstatements. But in the case of an epidemic, this is incredibly dangerous. I think part of what Donald Trump’s been doing is he’s been playing to Rush Limbaugh and the far right, because they have started a narrative that says — well, they have two narratives. One is there isn’t any epidemic, this is all fake news, exaggerating everything to undermine Trump’s bid for reelection. There’s a lot of that going on. Rush Limbaugh is leading that charge. Another narrative out there coming from the right is this was all made in a laboratory in China, and this is an evil bioterrorism something or other. And our president has to show strength at this time. Both are lies. And both — people who play around a lot on social media, regardless of their political stance, are absorbing them, because they don’t understand where it’s coming from.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a CNN reporter, Marshall Cohen, tweeting, quote, “Rush Limbaugh and right-wing fringe sites are attacking Dr. Nancy Messonnier, a top CDC official handling the coronavirus response, because she is Rod Rosenstein’s sister. They’re spreading the lie that she’s part of the deep state and trying to tank the markets to weaken Trump,” unquote. This is a clip of Dr. Messonnier discussing the coronavirus crisis.

DR. NANCY MESSONNIER: Some community-level interventions that may be most effective in reducing the spread of a new virus, like school closures, are also the most likely to be associated with unwanted consequences and further disruptions. Secondary consequences of some of these measures might include missed work and loss of income. I understand this whole situation may seem overwhelming and that disruption to everyday life may be severe, but these are things that people need to start thinking about now.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Dr. Nancy Messonier. Laurie Garrett?

LAURIE GARRETT: Yeah. Well, she’s right. And we all need to be getting ready. I mean, we don’t need to be distracted by this insane political situation. We need to be focused on what we’re going to do when this virus sweeps across America. And it’s no longer a, you know, distant, crazy idea, the kind of things I receive death threats. Every time I’m on your show, somebody calls and tries to kill me. And every time I’m on your show, I get loonies telling me they know of a secret cure. You know, it’s this stuff you rub off a tree, or it’s this thing you put under your pillow or whatever. And if I don’t show positive response and say, Oh, yay! I’m going to tell America to use that junk you scraped off a tree,” then they threaten me. And, you know, it’s — there are people who want any epidemic situation to be something they can exploit for a set of principles they have, or ideas. But this is not the moment for that. We have a very narrow window, America, to get our act together. And getting our act together means at an individual level, at a community level, at a business level, at a school level. And there —

AMY GOODMAN: It even seems that President Trump doesn’t understand the deadly nature of this. He was being questioned by Sanjay Gupta of CNN at that news conference, and he did not seem to understand that the coronavirus is, what, 20 times more deadly than the flu.

LAURIE GARRETT: No, more like 2,000 times. No, he completely got his numbers wrong, although numbers probably are not his forte to begin with. He said — well, let’s say it correctly rather than misinform. The coronavirus mortality rate is running somewhere between 2 to 4%, and depending where you look and which population groups you’re in. The 1918 flu, which was the most devastating influenza in the history of our species, was less than 2%. So, this is already more lethal than the pandemic of 1918. Garden-variety, everyday flu, it’s about 0.1 to 0.01% fatal.

AMY GOODMAN: Final comments, as we look at what’s happening in the world, every continent but Antarctica? What does it mean to have a unified response?

LAURIE GARRETT: Well, we won’t have a unified response. We don’t. It’s fragmented. It’s fragmented within countries, and it’s fragmented among countries. Already everybody is sealing their borders. Everybody starts saying, “No, you can’t fly here. You can’t.” Well, we’re going to see, and what’s unfolding now, and the reason that the smart guys on the stock market are getting upset, is that the whole globalization system, the chain of supply and shipping, is fragmenting. And it’s fragmenting amid fear and amid the false idea that in the age of air travel you could somehow stop a virus by just saying, “No, no, no, you’re not allowed to land at that airport.” Well, how did this fellow way up in Northern California in a rural area get infected? You know, we’ve been screening at the San Francisco airport since day one of this mess.

So, I think that the problem is we don’t have a solidified response. And what you’re going to see, and it’s already playing out, is this NIMBY attitude. You know, we already have states saying, “We’re not going to allow you to put quarantined people in our state. Ship them to another state,” and “Oh, my state has plenty of masks on supply. We’re not sharing them with the bozos next door.” In every tabletop exercise I’ve ever been in for the last 30 years role-playing what would happen in an outbreak, the solidarity between the states of the United States completely breaks down. States put borders. They won’t let you come on a highway. And they block goods from leaving the state: “No, that may be destined for Illinois, but we in Indiana want those supplies. You can’t take them to Illinois.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there now, but of course we’ll continue to cover this. Laurie Garrett, the former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer. Among her books, Ebola: Story of an Outbreak, The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance and Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health. When we come back, is there a connection between the coronavirus and climate change? Stay with us.

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