In February 2020, a senior adviser at the Department of Veterans Affairs cautioned in an email thread among senior federal health officials that the nation was “flying blind” in the face of early coronavirus cases in California and elsewhere. The email was included in a set of records obtained by American Oversight and illustrated the fast-rising levels of concern and confusion that characterized the early critical months of the coronavirus pandemic.
The U.S. pandemic response fell behind as early as February and March, when testing rates remained far below those of other developed countries. Efforts also stalled because of a flawed testing kit from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while bureaucratic hurdles hindered the creation of other tests and kept supply low. Researchers have since found that the U.S. could have prevented hundreds of thousands of coronavirus-related deaths had it implemented sufficient mitigation measures in the spring of 2020, including aggressive and widespread testing and mask requirements.
Meanwhile, states struggled to coordinate with federal agencies and the White House. American Oversight obtained records from Washington state and Illinois in which state officials expressed frustration over the White House’s poor communication and the difficulties in working with the CDC. By April, with more than 200,000 Covid-19 cases confirmed in the U.S., states were also struggling to get necessary medical equipment, thanks in part to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s practice of driving up prices by outbidding states and seizing shipments of medical supplies from hospitals.
During these months, President Donald Trump’s public rhetoric only made matters worse, as he publicly opposed safety measures imposed by states, continued to push for the lifting of stay-at-home orders, and made dangerous claims about Covid-19 treatments.
American Oversight has been investigating the inadequate federal response during this early period of the pandemic. We have sent requests to multiple agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Food and Drug Administration, seeking directives and communications regarding Covid-19 testing. We also asked FEMA for assessments evaluating the inventory of critical supplies and general directives on interstate competition for personal protective equipment. Finally, we’ve sent public records requests to health departments in Texas, Nevada, New York, Washington, California, New York, and Florida asking for communications with federal officials related to the pandemic.