Editorial: Pearl Harbor, 9/11 and coronavirus: Yet again, we say ‘never again’

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U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said more than he may have intended Sunday when he compared this week’s expected surge in coronavirus deaths to “our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment.”

Inconveniently for his boss, President Donald Trump, the comparison was to two other disasters that caught our nation similarly unprepared.

The failures this time, however, were even more conspicuous and unforgivable.

We say failures — in the plural — because of new revelations that Florida, under former Gov. Rick Scott and now under his successor, Gov. Ron DeSantis, has systematically dismembered the state’s defenses against just such a pandemic with severe cuts to the Florida Department of Health.

Yet both our state and federal governments have been on alert for years that a pandemic was inevitable.

Before Pearl Harbor, in contrast, the U.S. Navy did not know that the Japanese fleet was approaching in the North Pacific. In 2001, the CIA was aware that Osama bin Laden was planning an attack in the U.S., but did not know how, where or when.

This time, there were nearly two full months of explicit warnings before the first U.S. death from coronavirus, which has now taken more lives than Pearl Harbor and 9/11 combined.

The administration was formally notified on Jan. 3 of the new virus in China. Within days, the Washington Post reported, “U.S. spy agencies were signaling the seriousness.”

But, the paper said, Trump did not get a substantial briefing until Jan. 18, when Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar met him at Mar-a-Lago and came away saying the president considered him “alarmist.”

The New York Times reported Tuesday that on Jan. 29, there was a dramatic warning from Peter Navarro, the president’s trade adviser.

“The lack of immune protection or an existing cure or vaccine would leave Americans defenseless in the case of a full-blown coronavirus outbreak on U.S. soil,” he wrote. “This lack of protection elevates the risk of the coronavirus evolving into a full-blown pandemic, imperiling the lives of millions of Americans.”

Critical weeks were lost while the Centers for Disease Control, never intended or equipped to produce mass tests for a pandemic, fumbled the job. The dearth of testing, still in critically short supply, became the nation’s worst point of vulnerability.

The administration was slow to recognize the dire shortage of protective gear for health workers and of ventilators to keep critically ill victims alive, and to impose travel restrictions on people coming from China and Europe that were too late and too porous.

Throughout, Trump kept assuring the public that it was no big deal. On Feb. 10, at a rally in New Hampshire, he said, “By April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.”

That was one of eight rallies he held after hearing Azar’s warning.

Trump is still substituting his judgment for that of Dr. Anthony Fauci and other doctors who caution him against extolling a medication that has not been evaluated for effectiveness against COVID-19, and who are urging a stay-at-home order as a national strategy.

Some governors heard the same doctors during a meeting of the National Governors Conference in Washington on Feb. 9, with different results.

“They were telling us then exactly what they are saying now,” said Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who is chairman of the conference.

Hogan closed Maryland’s schools on March 13, before his state had suffered any deaths from the virus. Maryland’s last reported COVID-19 death rate of two per 100,000 is less than half that of Washington state, where the virus first appeared in the U.S., and one-twelfth that of New York.

But eight other states with Republican governors have yet to shut much of anything down.

DeSantis waited for an okay signal from Trump, who was instrumental in electing him two years ago, to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, but it still allows attendance at church services, which some local governments wanted to prevent.

DeSantis inherited a government whose pandemic defenses had been knowingly weakened, and made it worse by cutting nearly 600 positions from the health department last year.

On Friday, the Tampa Bay Times reported this at length. The bulk of the blame falls heavily on former Gov. Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator, who once ran a hugely profitable hospital company and was supposed to know more about public health than most other people do.

In 2005, when Jeb Bush was governor, health officials predicted “a crisis remarkably similar to the one playing out now,” the Times reported, “a virus that could infect more than a million Florida residents.”

Preparation became a priority. Florida performed the nation’s largest simulation of an influenza epidemic. The state health department was strengthened with resources and specialized workers, and kept asking for more.

But Florida cut spending on the health department and its 67 county agencies throughout Scott’s term as governor, which began in 2011. Within two years, $130 million was lost. The agency went from more than 17,000 positions in 2011 to fewer than 13,000 in 2019.

During those eight years, Florida experienced its worst tuberculosis outbreak in decades, the Zika virus infested South Florida, and a hepatitis A epidemic was declared a public health emergency.

Despite the TB outbreak, Scott authorized the closing of the state’s only specialized treatment facility. Legislators who went along said they had not been told about the TB problem. The bill also did away with the health department’s statutory duty to prevent the spread of disease “to the fullest extent possible.”

A year after scrambling to fight the Zika virus, Scott and the Florida Legislature eliminated the special funding they had created to develop vaccines and tests, closing a process that could have been of use against the COVID-19 virus. Florida now has fewer epidemiologists, 1.3 per 100,000 residents, than at least 28 other states, even though we have the second highest percentage of vulnerable elderly people.

Asked to respond to this, Scott’s office replied in an outburst of partisan propaganda.

“The Democrats and their media partners believe that bigger government and more bureaucracy are the solution to every problem,” his spokesman said.

“We’re certainly not going to apologize for making government more efficient and effective for Florida taxpayers. The majority of the positions you mentioned were vacancies that were dormant,” he said in part.

That raises other questions: Were they dormant because of inadequate pay? Because someone simply didn’t care to fill them? Or so that it would be convenient to abolish them and divert the money to tax cuts?

In life, we get what we pay for. In death, we get what we don’t pay for.


©2020 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

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