Donald J. Trump’s presidential term came to a close on Wednesday, one year after the United States’ first confirmed Covid-19 case.
Before SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, was first identified in the U.S., an analysis from researchers at Johns Hopkins University had found that the U.S. was, at least on paper, better prepared for a pandemic than any other country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was widely considered to be a world leader in combatting public health threats.
Public health leaders and policymakers, though, struggled with the initial response. Within months, the virus had overwhelmed some major U.S. cities. Health experts stood by in shock as the CDC struggled to launch a working SARS-Cov-2 test. Once those tests arrived, the Trump administration largely failed to implement a national testing program. Simple public health measures, like masks, became political flashpoints, stoked by the president. The CDC’s own outbreak communication guidelines instruct leaders to project empathy, honesty, dedication, and competence; as the mass dying began, Trump suggested that bleach injections might help kill the virus — and then, later, said it was just a joke. Scientists managed to develop working vaccines on a compressed timeline, but then the rollout fell short of distribution targets.
The disjointed White House response could be dismaying for public health experts. Rob Tosatto, a retired U.S. Public Health Service officer, recently told Undark that, over the years, he had sat in “so many of the planning meetings” for a pandemic response. “And never once in any of those was a federal failure to act part of the scenario,” he said. “It never would have occurred to us that an administration would ignore the plans that were in place.”
Also on Wednesday, just hours after assuming office, President Joe Biden began moving away from some elements of Trump’s pandemic policy, signing executive orders to rejoin the World Health Organization and to require masks to be worn on federal property. The administration’s 200-page pandemic strategy, published on Thursday, details plans to invoke the Defense Production Act in order to provide more medical supplies, create new vaccination centers across the country, and implement a national testing strategy.
How effectively those measures will ease Covid-19 — particularly in the face of a divided public and looming new variants of the coronavirus — remains to be seen. But, this week, Biden administration insiders were quick to insist change was coming — and to disparage their predecessors. Trump’s team, unnamed Biden White House sources told CNN, had not even left behind a vaccine distribution plan to work from. “There is nothing for us to rework,” one source told the network. “We are going to have to build everything from scratch.”
Also in the News:
• As concerns rise about new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, European countries are tightening their mask regulations, with Germany now requiring medical-grade protection instead of single-layer or loose fitting cloth masks. Austria is expected to follow suit on Monday, while France is considering taking similar action. That increased strictness is mostly in response to the B117 variant, first identified in the United Kingdom and now confirmed in some 55 countries, including the U.S. Early studies of the variant suggest that it may be 50 percent more infectious than the original coronavirus variant that started the Covid-19 pandemic and could, as apparently happened in the U.K., drive a new surge of infections globally. Current vaccines, such as the Pfizer/BioNTech shot, do protect against the B117 variant. But scientists are concerned that may be less true with some of the other viral variants now appearing. These include the P1 variant in Brazil, which appears to be reinfecting some people who already had Covid-19, and the CAL.20C variant in California, which some researchers think could be driving a startling rise in infections there. In the German state of Bavaria, one of the first jurisdictions to toughen mask requirements, officials have reported yet another variant. “There is still time to contain the danger,” Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel told The Washington Post, as the government called for the use of better protective gear. “So it’s about prevention.” (Multiple sources)
• Last Friday, then-president-elect Joe Biden announced his pick for science adviser and, for the first time, elevated the role to the Cabinet level. The role will go to the geneticist Eric Lander, formerly the president of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, a major biomedical research center. Soon after the announcement, scientists took to social media to express both excitement and misgivings about the appointment. While Lander is a respected and high-profile scientist — a leader of the Human Genome Project, among other accomplishments — his career has also been marked with controversy. Among the examples: allegedly slandering rival scientists; rewriting the history of the discovery of Crispr to favor his own institution; and leading a 90th birthday toast to the geneticist James Watson, who has a long history of making racist and sexist statements. Despite the controversies, even some of Lander’s critics expressed some positive notes. “You know, he’s a complicated figure,” Michael Eisen, a geneticist at the University of California, Berkeley, told BuzzFeed News. “Let’s be clear, compared to where we’ve been for the past four years, it’s great.” (BuzzFeed News)
• The scientist formerly in charge of Florida’s Covid-19 dashboard turned herself in to police on Sunday after a warrant was issued for her arrest on charges of illegal use of the state’s computer system. Rebekah Jones, who worked as a data scientist for the Florida Department of Health before Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration fired her in May, had been under investigation since November, when authorities became aware that someone had used the state’s emergency alert system to warn employees “to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead.” Jones maintains that she was fired for refusing to manipulate data to support the state’s reopening plan, while a spokesperson for the governor has said she was let go for “a repeated course of insubordination.” Following a raid of Jones’ home in December, law enforcement said they confirmed she was responsible for sending the message and downloading confidential data. Prior to turning herself in, Jones tweeted that DeSantis “will not win his war on science and free speech. He will not silence those who speak out.” (CBS Miami)
• The western monarch butterfly may be nearing the brink of extinction, according to a new study by The Xerces Society, a nonprofit conservation group. The society’s annual tally of butterflies along the California and northern Mexico coasts turned up fewer than 2,000 monarchs this year, a sharp decline from last year’s count of 29,000 and just a fraction of the millions of butterflies that annually flocked to the region during the 1980s. The monarchs, which migrate south from the Pacific Northwest each winter, are a perennial draw for tourists. But in some of the most iconic wintering sites this year, there wasn’t a single butterfly to be found, the surveyors reported. Scientists say that pesticides, herbicides, and habitat destruction along the butterflies’ migratory route are driving the population decline. Wildfires that scorched the Western U.S. last year are also thought to have played a role. Researchers have previously warned that a population decline below 30,000 would put the monarchs at risk of extinction. (The Associated Press)
• And finally: On Wednesday, before departing from the White House, former President Trump pardoned or commuted the sentences of 143 people, including convicted Medicare fraudster Salomon Melgen. An eye doctor who had multiple clinics in Palm Beach County, Florida, Melgen had recently begun serving a 17-year sentence for defrauding Medicare and other insurers out of millions of dollars. According to prosecutors, Melgen falsely diagnosed elderly patients with macular degeneration and treated them by administering Lucentis, a drug that is injected into the eye. He then billed Medicare or their insurance providers for the fraudulent therapy. By the time Melgen was indicted in 2017, he had already provided false treatment for hundreds of patients, in what some prosecutors called the biggest ever Medicare fraud case in U.S. history. Melgen, who has never admitted guilt, expressed gratitude towards Trump for “recognizing the injustice” of his conviction. (The Palm Beach Post)
“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Brooke Borel, Lucas Haugen, Jane Roberts, and Ashley Smart contributed to this roundup.