As evidence continues to pile up that Trump’s dysfunctional response to the coronavirus crisis has hindered states’ efforts to curb the outbreak, new reporting from The Wall Street Journal has detailed how former pharmaceutical lobbyist and top Trump health official Alex Azar delayed the federal government response to the virus, misled on testing and agency preparedness, and failed to effectively coordinate between agencies.


Not only was the Trump administration slow to respond to the coronavirus threat, but Health and Human Services Secretary Azar “oversold his agency’s progress” and failed to communicate with federal agencies including FEMA to coordinate federal response until long after the disaster was already spiraling out of control. Azar also “waited weeks” to contact manufacturers about medical supply shortages and tapped a former labradoodle breeder to lead the HHS task force on COVID-19.


Despite overwhelming evidence that Trump’s chaotic and failed leadership has hindered the national coronavirus response, Senator Susan Collins has defended him, telling the Bangor Daily News that he “did a lot that was right in the beginning.” Now that it is clear that Trump has broken nearly every one of his promises on the pandemic, will Senator Collins finally demand accountability, or will she continue to defend Trump?


The Wall Street Journal: Health Chief’s Early Missteps Set Back Coronavirus Response


By Rebecca Ballhaus and Stephanie Armour

April 22, 2020


Key Points:


  • On Jan. 29, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told President Trump the coronavirus epidemic was under control.


  • The U.S. government had never mounted a better interagency response to a crisis, Mr. Azar told the president in a meeting held eight days after the U.S. announced its first case, according to administration officials. At the time, the administration’s focus was on containing the virus.


  • When other officials asked about diagnostic testing, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, began to answer. Mr. Azar cut him off, telling the president it was “the fastest we’ve ever created a test,” the officials recalled, and that more than one million tests would be available within weeks.


  • That didn’t happen. The CDC began shipping tests the following week, only to discover a flaw that forced it to recall the test from state public-health laboratories. When White House advisers later in February criticized Mr. Azar for the delays caused by the recall, he lashed out at Dr. Redfield, accusing the CDC director of misleading him on the timing of a fix. “Did you lie to me?” one of the officials recalled him yelling.


  • Six weeks after that Jan. 29 meeting, the federal government declared a national emergency and issued guidelines that effectively closed down the country. Mr. Azar, who had been at the center of the decision-making from the outset, was eventually sidelined.


  • Many factors muddled the administration’s early response to the coronavirus as officials debated the severity of the threat, including comments from Mr. Trump that minimized the risk. But interviews with more than two dozen administration officials and others involved in the government’s coronavirus effort show that Mr. Azar waited for weeks to brief the president on the threat, oversold his agency’s progress in the early days and didn’t coordinate effectively across the health-care divisions under his purview.


  • The ramp-up of the nation’s diagnostic testing for the disease caused by coronavirus, which many health experts regard as critical for limiting new infections and safely reopening the economy, has been slower than promised and hampered by obstacles. As of Wednesday, more than four million government and private-lab tests had been administered. The president now says states bear the primary responsibility for testing, and that the federal government plays only a supporting role.


  • It also oversees the distribution of $100 billion in stimulus funding to the health-care system. Many hospitals, doctors and health systems said the agency hasn’t released the funds quickly enough or prioritized the hardest-hit hospitals. An HHS spokeswoman said the secretary was following best practices and soliciting input.


  • Meanwhile, some in the administration view Mr. Azar as having marginalized the CDC, which hasn’t held a briefing in a month. A CDC spokesman said the agency is communicating its efforts in other ways.


  • In recent weeks, some administration officials have become so concerned about the lack of agency coordination that the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council began convening his own meetings with agency leaders at HHS, including from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS.


  • FDA chief Stephen Hahn asked HHS in January if he could start contacting diagnostic and pharmaceutical companies about possible shortages of personal protective gear and other equipment, administration officials said. He was told no. An FDA official said the agency was already conducting outreach to companies.


  • Mr. Azar told associates such calls would alarm the industry and make the administration look unprepared, people familiar with the matter said. HHS officials waited weeks to contact manufacturers about possible shortages of medical supplies, the people said.


  • On Jan. 28, Mr. Azar told reporters that for the individual American, the virus “should not be an impact on their day-to-day life,” adding that the administration was taking “aggressive action.” The next day, the White House announced that Mr. Azar would lead the task force responding to coronavirus. In the task force meeting that day, he assured the president that everything was under control.


  • Mr. Azar was reluctant for weeks to involve the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which typically oversees disaster-response operations, telling associates he wanted to keep control of the response and that including FEMA would further complicate the administration’s efforts. In the interview, Mr. Azar said he invited FEMA’s participation in early February.


  • FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor told lawmakers on March 20 he wasn’t invited to join the White House task force until earlier that week, and that FEMA hadn’t held its first “interagency synchronization call” until that day.


  • Mr. Azar’s declaration of a public-health emergency on Jan. 31 meant that any lab that wanted to develop a test had to first seek approval from the FDA. The FDA didn’t clear any labs to conduct testing until Feb. 29, nearly a month later. For weeks, HHS blocked efforts to allow other labs’ involvement because Mr. Azar wanted the CDC to make and distribute the nation’s diagnostic tests.


  • In White House meetings, Mr. Azar gave no indication there was a problem with testing, administration officials said. Throughout February, Mr. Azar continued to assure the president and the rest of the task force that HHS had the situation under control, the officials said. Dr. Redfield never gave Mr. Azar a timeline for when the testing problem would be fixed, because he didn’t know what was causing the problem, one administration official said.


  • On March 6, during a visit to the CDC with Mr. Azar, the president said: “Anybody that wants a test can get a test.” That still isn’t the case. Today, the U.S. continues to lag behind other countries on tests conducted per capita.