I turned on ESPN to watch a bit of professional baseball being played in South Korea. Not because I miss baseball that much but because, using one of President Donald Trump’s favorite terms, I wanted to see what “winning” looks like in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. The start of the major league baseball season in South Korea symbolizes how far behind we have fallen in that battle. South Korea is winning, and we are not.
COVID-19 arrived in South Korea on January 20th, the same day the first case was diagnosed in the United States in the state of Washington. As of today, 259 people in South Korea had died from the virus and the death toll has slowed to a trickle. In the United States, 83,807 have died and the number of deaths continues to climb.
South Korea has about one-sixth the population of the United States. That means that the 256 deaths in South Korea were equivalent to 1,554 deaths in the United States, and that the death rate in the United States is about 54 times higher than that of South Korea. With recent estimates that the number of deaths in the United States may climb to as many 135,000, the United States is on track to have a death rate 100 times higher than South Korea’s.
It is an astonishing difference and it did not happen by accident. As has been well documented, South Korea did things right that we did very wrong. It is an example of Mr. Trump’s least favorite term – losing – if ever there was one.
Winning is everything to Trump’s fragile ego. You can see in his eyes during his briefings – and read in his tweets – that it is beginning to dawn on him that through his disastrous handling of the pandemic response he has cemented his legacy as the biggest loser in this country’s history.
How to win
On January 27th, South Korean officials met with representatives of 20 medical companies at a train station, urging them to begin work on developing tests for COVID-19. A regulatory process for approving diagnostic tests that usually takes up to a year-and-a-half was shortened to one week. By the end of February, South Korea had drive-through testing centers and was testing thousands of people each day.
South Korea used its testing capacity, aggressive contact tracing, and quarantining to implement a national program for identifying and isolating people infected with COVID-19 to reduce the sources of transmission and slow the spread of the disease. By controlling the pandemic in that manner, South Korean officials not only lowered the death toll, they did so without severe restrictions on businesses and schools, thus softening the impact on the economy.
How to lose –
The United States, on the other hand, made a series of egregious mistakes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declined to use the test kit approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) in favor of one of its own, which turned out to be faulty. It was strike one, and the opportunity to contain the pandemic began slipping away.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) initially refused to allow hospital and public health laboratories to develop their own tests. By February 24th, still lacking usable tests from the CDC, health officials in the state of Washington and elsewhere had grown desperate. The Association of Public Health Laboratories sent a letter to Dr. Stephen Hahn, the FDA commissioner, asking him to waive approval protocols and allow state and local public health laboratories to create their own tests. He finally relented on February 29th and allowed public and commercial labs to produce tests, but it was too late. Strike two, and the opportunity to contain the epidemic was lost.
The president failed to use the Defense Production Act (DPA) as part of a national testing strategy to maximize production of test kits and the materials needed to use them, control the supply chains, and distribute test kits where most needed. No national strategy ever was adopted, and in the face of a continuing shortage of testing supplies the president declared testing a “state responsibility.” Strike three, and the chance to avoid a catastrophic loss of life had evaporated.
In effect, Mr. Trump took his bat and ball and went home, leaving the states with a terrible dilemma. They are in the position of lifting restrictions to try to restart ailing economies without adequate testing capacity to do so safely. To make matters worse – if that is even possible – he has pressed states to reopen while at the same time personally denigrating not only the need for more testing but also masking and social distancing practices.
Trump’s hand-picked federal reserve chairman warned him today of dire consequences unless Congress moves quickly to approve more aid to offset the economic impact of the pandemic. Trump appears unable or unwilling to control senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who is as evil as Trump is mentally ill and is determined not to help the citizens of “blue” states, stalling progress on the next aid package.
The United States is what losing looks like in the fight against COVID-19. The loss will be measured not in runs but in preventable deaths and a ruined economy. We are still in the middle innings, and the number of preventable deaths already is over 80,000 and climbing. The United States is suffering a terrible, terrible defeat at the hands of COVID-19 and the blame lies squarely on Donald Trump. He was handed a team of winners – the greatest collection of medical, scientific, and logistical expertise in the world – and he turned us all into losers.