A life-threatening virus is spreading rapidly in this country. At least 105 children are among the estimated 16,000 Americans who have died since the outbreak began. I’m talking about the flu, of course.
Here’s what a top government official recently had to say about the consequences of an uncontrolled influenza pandemic. “The virus could kill more than half a million Americans and inflict trillions of dollars of damage on our economy.”
Who said it? President Donald Trump. It’s near the top of an executive order he signed last September calling for a stepped-up program to improve the annual flu vaccine.
Too bad his administration paid no attention to that order. In its proposed budget released last month, the administration wants to cut the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s budget by 16%. It proposed cutting U.S. contributions to the World Health Organization, which is on the frontlines of fighting global pandemics, by more than half.
It’s impossible to know at this point how extensive—or lethal—the coronavirus outbreak, which began in China last December, will become. But let’s be thankful the full-scale panic triggered by a stock market plunge has focused the president’s attention on the need for more resources to combat pandemics.
Upon his return from India, the president asked Congress for an emergency $2.5 billion for vaccine development, preparedness measures and testing equipment. When Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called for $8.5 billion, he endorsed that, too.
Some of that money needs to trickle down to state and local governments. About 50,000 public health department positions—the frontline workforce for fighting pandemics—have been eliminated in the past decade due to cutbacks in federal grants.
In this moment of national uncertainty, it’s comforting to know the U.S. is a nation that closely adheres to the advice of its medical scientists. We should be thankful our wise political leadership properly defers to public health authorities who are well-schooled in how to manage pandemics.
Ha, ha. Just kidding.
With the stock market in temporary free fall last week, White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow took to the airwaves to declare “we have contained this,” a public challenge to the CDC’s official position. At a Senate hearing, Louisiana Republican John Kennedy expressed dismay when Department of Homeland Security’s acting director Chad Wolf didn’t know the number of cases and had no projections for its spread.
HHS Secretary Alex Azar appeared on Capitol Hill to repeat the “containment” line. “The risk right now is very low to Americans,” he said. “We technically are in a state of containment … (although) that could change rapidly.”
But let’s be fair to our bumbling leaders. Why should we expect them to respond rationally to a potential threat when they do next to nothing about one that is ever-present?
Depending on the severity of the outbreak, the seasonal flu kills anywhere from 12,000 to 61,000 people a year, mostly among the elderly. In its latest report, the CDC estimates 26 million Americans have been stricken with the disease this season. Modern Healthcare reported weeks ago that hospitals have been inundated with flu cases.
Where are the congressional hearings on this year’s flu epidemic and the minimal response to its spread? Why were just 45% of adults and 63% of children vaccinated this flu season despite the availability of a record number of doses?
Over the next few weeks, as coronavirus cases become staples of local media coverage across the country, healthcare leaders and local officials need to speak out about any and all inadequacies they see in the nation’s system for fighting infectious disease outbreaks. The federal government needs guidance on how to rebuild its badly damaged public health infrastructure.