In the age of coronavirus, our nation needs a responsible leader who trusts scientists

April 21, 2020 by stephenshubert

 

By Special to The Times

As the numbers of local coronavirus cases and deaths grow inexorably, Seattle-area citizens are paying the awful price of President Donald Trump’s disdain for science. Our sprawling metropolitan area has become the U.S. epicenter of this new disease, which could have been better contained had his administration not turned its back on prudent prevention and control efforts.

The departure of Admiral Timothy Ziemer last May and the dissolution of his global health security team at the National Security Council by John Bolton left the Trump administration rudderless in confronting global pandemics such as the one now staring us starkly in the face. “America First!” unfortunately does not help corral viruses that can cross national borders almost as easily as the wind. The appropriate response to such global threats is inherently international.

The president has attempted to gut the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A hiring freeze that led to hundreds of vacant staff positions hurt its infectious disease-control abilities and health-emergency readiness. And his 2021 budget, released in February, proposed an unconscionable 16% funding cut for the CDC, aiming to further reduce spending on global health.

It’s hardly any wonder, then, that “the rollout of a CDC-designed test kit to state and local labs has become a fiasco because it contained a faulty reagent,” according to the authoritative magazine Science. Despite plenty of advance notice that the virus was headed our way, with the first U.S. case showing up in Everett on Jan. 20, testing was initially limited narrowly to travelers from China and to those with whom known victims had come into close contact. And until late February, tests had to be done by the Atlanta-based agency because of the test-kit flaw, taking precious additional days.

That testing lapse probably allowed — and surely helped — the novel coronavirus to begin percolating unnoticed through Seattle-area communities. Analysis based on gene sequencing of virus samples by Dr. Trevor Bedford of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and University of Washington strongly suggests that hundreds of individuals in the area may be carrying the virus while experiencing mild or no symptoms but are still able to infect others.

“This lack of testing was a critical error and allowed an outbreak in Snohomish County and surroundings to grow to a sizable problem before it was ever detected,” Bedford stated on his website.

Such community spread and “cryptic transmission” can readily explain how the new virus crept surreptitiously into the Life Care Center of Kirkland, resulting in multiple deaths. Delays in testing residents there suffering from respiratory distress inevitably led to even more cases of COVID-19. And over two dozen responding firefighters have since been quarantined, some of whom are now beginning to show flu-like symptoms.

In coming days, weeks and months, Seattle is likely to become the Milan of the United States, with travel into and out of the area heavily restricted due to the high incidence of COVID-19 infections. Schools are closing. And businesses involving close human contact seem likely to follow suit (like Nike in Oregon.) One can only begin to imagine the economic consequences.

And yet our germophobic president continues to trumpet the outbreak as the latest media and Democratic Party “hoax” aimed at dislodging him from the White House. Instead of mounting a credible, forceful counterattack on the virus, he put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of a “task force” whose principal task is to control the messaging and muzzle authoritative scientists such as Anthony Fauci, the honest, forthright director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

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This is the pinnacle of presidential hypocrisy. No amount of hand sanitizer will be able to halt the looming global pandemic.

What our nation desperately needs is a responsible leader who actually appreciates scientists and understands that their expertise is absolutely essential to the functioning of a complex, 21st-century public-health system — and how it is inextricably linked to its international counterparts.

Michael Riordan is a physicist and author of “The Hunting of the Quark” and co-author of “Crystal Fire, the Birth of the Information Age” and “Tunnel Visions: The Rise and Fall of the Superconducting Super Collider.”

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