Early Pandemic Confusion at Federal and State Health Agencies

During the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government's frequent lack of clarity and the absence of a clear leadership structure hampered health agencies' and state officials' response to the crisis. American Oversight is investigating the coordination problems that beset federal and local health departments during the spring of 2020.

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.

Updates

Covid-19 Oversight News: Soaring Hospitalizations, Booster Shots, and Full Approval for Pfizer Vaccine

August 24, 2021
For the latest news on the pandemic, as well as updates on various oversight investigations, sign up for our bi-weekly Covid-19 Oversight News email.

News Roundup: The Resurgent Pandemic and Partisan Election Reviews

July 29, 2021
The Delta variant's spread across the U.S. has created a pandemic of the unvaccinated and, like many aspects of the past year and a half, one that each state is experiencing differently.

New Records Include Private Executives’ Emails with Hahn, Kushner

May 27, 2021
American Oversight has obtained new emails from 2020 in which Trump officials fielded requests from private-sector representatives, in some cases requesting assistance from top public health officials.

New Documents Show CDC Officials Dealing with Early Covid Testing Problems

April 29, 2021
American Oversight obtained more than 2,000 pages of documents from the early months of the pandemic that illustrate the CDC’s struggles to create and implement reliable Covid-19 testing.

In March 2020 Email to Azar, Nielsen Recommended Company That DHS Had Used to Conduct DNA Testing at the Border

February 25, 2021
American Oversight obtained communications showing that the former homeland security secretary recommended that HHS work with a private company that had participated in a 2019 pilot program to test immigrant families’ DNA.

In the Documents: Federal and Local Governments’ Communications from Early Months of Pandemic Show Confusion, Frustration

December 2, 2020
Here’s a summary of coronavirus-related records that American Oversight has published in the last month.

News Roundup: Trump and Barr Unleash Attack on Protesters — and the Constitution

June 5, 2020
The irony of protests against police brutality being met with violent escalation by law enforcement is perhaps matched only by the authoritarianism of the president and attorney general. 

In the Documents: Coronavirus-Related Records from Nevada and King County, Wash.

June 5, 2020
American Oversight has obtained records from Nevada and Washington state that shed some light on the level of coordination among state and federal agencies.

The CDC Has Been Illegally Rejecting Valid FOIA Requests. We’re Suing.

May 15, 2020
American Oversight filed a lawsuit over the agency’s illegal practice of rejecting valid Freedom of Information Act requests — including for documents related to the coronavirus pandemic.

An Update on American Oversight’s Coronavirus Investigation: New Lawsuits and Requests

April 23, 2020
With three lawsuits and more than 400 public records requests filed, American Oversight intends to get to the bottom of what has been happening behind the scenes in the Trump administration’s mismanaged pandemic response.

News Roundup: Corruption and Coronavirus

April 10, 2020
Trump is apparently counting on the public to be too distracted by the coronavirus to pay much attention to his continuing dictator-like purges of government officials and his brazen rejection of oversight. 

American Oversight Sues for Coronavirus-Related Records

April 10, 2020
American Oversight today sued the Trump administration for failing to release records detailing early coronavirus testing decisions.

News Roundup: Whose Stockpile, and Which States?

April 3, 2020
It shouldn’t be surprising that the president, who downplayed the crisis until just a few weeks ago, is once again avoiding taking responsibility.

News Roundup: Continuing Our Investigation of Coronavirus Response

March 13, 2020
As we all take steps to mitigate the severity of the outbreak, American Oversight is continuing to investigate the Trump administration’s troublingly inadequate response to the crisis.

News Roundup: Rising Coronavirus Fears and Sinking Public Trust

March 6, 2020
The uncertainty and fear surrounding the coronavirus have laid bare the deadly consequences of President Donald Trump’s demand for obsequious loyalty and a refusal to take responsibility for mistakes.
Show all updates

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