(WASHINGTON) — More people died and more Americans lost trust in their institutions as a result of the federal government’s decisions made in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a newly released investigative report from the Democratic staff of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs.
The 242-page report authored by the committee’s majority, chaired by Democrat Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, expands on the perfect storm of colliding factors, such as longstanding systematic vulnerabilities in various parts of the government, that led to early bungling of the pandemic response. The report also builds on criticism of how then-President Donald Trump’s White House responded to the virus in 2020.
The committee’s majority staff said they endeavored to unpack why, from early on, the federal government appeared unprepared to address the pandemic — and why the Trump administration failed to adequately respond, while exerting partisan influence to exploit public health messaging as a political football.
Delayed action and repeatedly muddled communication eroded public trust and contributed to a greater loss of American lives, the report found, noting that the U.S. risks repeating the same mistakes in future disasters.
Devastation to life and livelihood also could have been better mitigated had leadership heeded prior pandemic planning and early warning signs and shored up the medical supply chain in advance, according to the report. Instead, the committee’s Democratic staff found that the Trump administration’s failures and “delayed response efforts” indeed “proved costly.”
“The suffering that was caused by the pandemic” was “not inevitable,” Peters said in a briefing with reporters ahead of the report’s release on Thursday. “We could have handled this situation a whole lot differently.”
“Communication from the White House at times contradicted statements from public health officials and statements from public health officials at times contradicted prior statements from other public health officials, without sufficient explanation,” the report states. That left the American public grappling with “inaccurate and contradictory communication.”
The report notes that many of the “systemic problems” that were “unaddressed” at the beginning of the pandemic, in 2020, have still not been fixed in 2022.
This is not the first congressional autopsy on the pandemic and its potential missteps, alongside other, internal reviews from within various federal agencies.
In August, Democrats on the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis released a report finding that the Trump White House exerted “extreme” and “inappropriate” pressure on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the early months of COVID-19 pandemic.
In late October, the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Richard Burr of North Carolina, released a report promoting the unproven theory that Covid “was the result of a research-related incident associated” at a Wuhan lab.
A scathing, internally initiated review of how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) handled COVID-19 found in August that its approach toward the pandemic failed to meet the moment of crisis. The report offered a series of changes intended to revamp the agency and make it more nimble.
For this new report, the committee’s Democratic staff said it conducted more than 90 interviews and briefings with public health experts as well as current and former officials within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), including those with the CDC, the FDA and others, and the Trump White House.
Staff reviewed more than 70,000 pages of documents, ultimately identifying a range of points on which the Trump administration’s initial response and actions “did not reflect the severity of the crisis and ultimately failed to effectively mitigate the spread,” the report stated.
Detection & surveillance of early COVID-19 cases was too slow
“The early months of 2020 were flooded with a series of missteps and missed opportunities,” the report states. “Throughout January and February 2020, CDC’s surveillance missed at least half of the cases that came into the country, resulting in false assurances to the American people that there was no community spread in the U.S.”
As the pandemic was taking hold in early 2020, “the U.S. failed to heed critical public warnings that foreshadowed the severity and transmissibility of the virus,” the committee’s majority staff found. By early February 2020, current and former federal officials “recognized what the Trump Administration did not: that the gravity and extent of the unfolding threat would likely require rapid and widespread interventions beyond containment,” according to the report.
Delays, disorganization for large-scale testing
The CDC’s initial efforts to develop and manufacture a COVID-19 test failed and the agency took weeks to figure out why, the committee report details.
“There were and continue to be conflicting internal accounts of not only what went wrong, but also the reasons for those failures,” the report states.
Meanwhile, the CDC and the FDA’s “insufficient” engagements with the private sector “from the outset” coupled with “unaddressed regulatory barriers” made the nation scramble without sufficient testing capacity and lacking insight on community spread, according to the report.
“As of February 29, 2020—by which time tens of thousands of Americans had likely been infected—CDC had tested fewer than 1,200 individuals for COVID-19,” the report states.
Contradictory and inadequate communication
The Trump administration “failed to take decisive action and adequately convey the threat to the American people” and “remained focused on containing the virus by trying to keep it out of the U.S., rather than implementing needed measures to mitigate its spread within the country,” the report states — adding that as the pandemic progressed, they focused on controlling the message.
“Contradictory and inadequate communications left Americans confused and unclear on what to do to minimize their risk and over time, [and] eroded public trust in public health guidance,” the report FOUND.
The White House also strong-armed federal health agencies’ guidance for political means, the report alleges.
“As the response progressed, the Trump Administration’s influence in CDC’s guidance expanded to the point where political officials within HHS altered public health guidance and reports,” according to the report. “In August 2020, the Trump Administration—without scientific justification—changed testing guidance to indicate asymptomatic individuals exposed to COVID-19 did not need a test. Officials have since reported various occasions of political appointees having interfered with CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports (MMWRs) and guidance documents.”
“[E]very time that the science clashed with the messaging, messaging won,” according to former CDC Chief of Staff Kyle McGowan, who was interviewed for the report.
“It was hard to keep the partisan out of the press conference once the White House became involved,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, who later led CDC’s response, told the committee.
The Trump White House “required approval of all telebriefings, media requests, and guidance documents, resulting in lengthy delays of critical health guidance and restricting CDC’s ability to share information directly with the public,” the report states. “It took until April 3, 2020 for the federal government to formally recommend the use of face masks—a policy that President Trump publicly declined to follow at the same press conference announcing the guidance.”
A long-insufficient medical supply chain
Images of doctors and nurses forced to reuse their N95 respirators, or having to wear garbage bags for gowns amid the thick of the pandemic, when personal protective equipment (PPE) was scarce, remain symbols of the health care system’s struggle during the onset of COVID-19.
The committee’s majority staff report found that the confluence of “insufficient domestic manufacturing capacity,” a “lack of visibility into supply chain dependence” and the “unprecedented demand” during the spread of COVID-19 “exposed long known supply chain vulnerabilities from U.S. dependence on foreign sources for critical medical products.”
Much of production for surgical masks, gowns and gloves relied on foreign sources, which grew problematic once some countries nationalized their medical supply production and or imposed export restrictions on PPE, according to the report.
Still, “in mid-February 2020, HHS internally assessed that there were ‘no known immediate problems with medical supply chains,’ contrary to multiple contemporaneous reports of PPE supply chain issues,” the report states.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) was depleted following the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, with inadequate PPE for health care workers in the event of a national crisis, the report found, and as the latest virus began gaining ground, critical inventory was low and did not contain testing supplies like nasal swabs and pipette tips.
Public health data collection was antiquated, not standardized
According to the report, the way public health data was collected made it difficult for various states and systems to share vital information about community spread, further delaying the reporting needed to make timely public health decisions.
Two years later, many states still use manual data entry systems and fax machines for the pandemic, the committee majority said — arguing that needs to change.
COVID-19 wasn’t the first missed opportunity
While the pandemic was unprecedented, it was not the first opportunity the U.S. had to learn from prior mistakes in disaster response, the report states.
Looking back at Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there were “long-term warnings” which “went unheeded,” according to the report. Government officials “neglected their duties to prepare for a forewarned catastrophe” and “took insufficient actions or made poor decisions in the days immediately before and after landfall” and crucial systems “failed” as did efforts to “provide effective leadership,” the report states.
“Fifteen years later, facing a public health crisis with many of the same critical federal preparedness and response priorities that apply in disaster response efforts, the federal government repeated these same failures” during prep for and initial response to COVID-19, the report states.
And the largest influenza pandemic exercise to date, “Crimson Contagion,” was held as recently as 2019 — meant to pressure-test a potential response. A review of that test “previewed many of the challenges during the initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the report. But by then, COVID-19 was already on the horizon and “came too late to implement in the initial stages of the … pandemic.”
Peters told reporters on Wednesday to expect further examination of the response.
“You’ll see specific actions,” he said, pointing to policymaking and private sector collaboration geared toward improving pandemic response. “I’m not a guy that wants to have a report written and then it collects dust on the shelf, that doesn’t do anybody any good.”
ABC News’ Anne Flaherty and John Santucci contributed to this report.
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