New emails obtained and released by American Oversight and others show senior federal health officials were increasingly alarmed about the rapidly spreading coronavirus in late February and early March — even as President Donald Trump and other top administration officials were publicly downplaying the threat and spreading false information.
Among the records released by King County, Washington, on Friday to multiple groups, is a lengthy email chain among senior health officials from the federal government — including U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams on multiple messages — as well as state and local governments, universities, and health organizations.
The email chain begins on Feb. 24, 2020, with a message from Duane Caneva, chief medical officer at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, with the subject line “Red Dawn Breaking Bad.” Caneva tells the group, “This is the new Red Dawn Email String.” (It is unclear from the email thread whether this is a reference to the 1984 film Red Dawn.)
On Feb. 25, Dr. Carter Mecher, a senior medical adviser at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) shared a chart projecting that the United States could potentially face as many as 1.7 million deaths as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Mecher, who also serves as a liaison to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), indicated that he had created the chart drawing upon publicly available data from the infection and illness rates observed on the cruise ship then being held at the port of Yokohama, Japan.
At the time of Mecher’s email, the official public statements coming from the White House were much less stark. During a news conference a day later, Trump gave an assurance that “within a couple of days” the number of confirmed cases “is going to be down to close to zero” and made misleading comparisons between COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and the seasonal flu. “We’re going very substantially down,” the president falsely claimed regarding the number of cases.
On Feb. 27, as Trump continued to publicly say that the “numbers look[ed] to be going down,” Mecher sent an email about a confirmed case in California and said that it appeared that “the outbreak has had a good head start.” The next day, Mecher emailed about a possible two-week window for minimizing the outbreak, saying, “we have a relatively narrow window and we are flying blind.”
The “Red Dawn” email chain also included a number of messages from health officials in Washington state, which at the time was experiencing the country’s worst outbreak, warning about risks to medical workers because of a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks. On Feb. 25, Dr. Eva Lee, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Operations Research in Medicine and HealthCare, wrote, “I do not know if we have enough resources to protect all frontline providers. That afternoon, Mecher replied, “We should plan assuming we won’t have enough PPE—so need to change the battlefield and how we envision or even define the front lines.”
Another email chain among medical experts in Washington state, this one with the subject line “exposures in hospitals,” discussed concerns about risks of exposure for health-care workers. “I am very concerned about the hospitals at this point,” wrote John B. Lynch, a professor at the University of Washington and medical director at the Harborview Medical Center’s Infectious Disease Clinic, on March 1.
“We are having a very serious challenge related to hospital exposures and impact on the healthcare system,” added Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, Seattle and King County’s public health officer. The next day, Trump appeared at a political rally in North Carolina, where he misleadingly told his audience that a vaccine would be available soon and that the U.S. was “ranked by far No. 1 in the world for preparedness.”
American Oversight has filed more than 100 federal and state records requests for communications and records related to the government’s response to the coronavirus. You can read more about our investigation and see those requests here.
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