Story Stream
recent articles

One year ago today, after receiving a morning briefing from the top health officials in the Trump administration, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an $8.3 billion bill to combat the new coronavirus sweeping the world. The morning briefing had done the trick: The vote was nearly unanimous. But as Americans would soon find out, the virus was already here.

That same day, March 4, 2020, California reported its first COVID death, although we now know that the first deaths in the state -- the first in the U.S. -- had occurred a month earlier in Santa Clara County. The first cluster was in Washington state, which reported six new deaths on March 4. News of first infections or new spikes came from all over: Malaysia, Japan, Brazil, Spain, Slovenia, Ireland, New York City -- and a cruise ship off the coast of San Francisco.

The most ominous news of the day wasn’t about how this deadly pathogen could travel the high seas. It came from Los Angeles, where one of the newly diagnosed COVID-19 patients was a medical screener at LAX.

By March 4, 2020, it was clear how a local virus morphs rapidly into a global pandemic in the 21st century: not via troop ships, as in 1918, but via passenger airlines. This one originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in the late autumn of 2019 and by late winter of 2020 it was in every corner of the world. The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said one year ago today that of the 158 confirmed U.S. cases, 49 came from “repatriated citizens,” presumably from China. But those numbers were the tip of a deadly iceberg that the CDC was as slow to detect as the crew of the Titanic. And when Congress passed its first coronavirus relief bill it was unaware that a cascading series of blunders at the CDC would render local health officials helpless in doing anything like contract tracing because the United States didn’t even have a valid test for detecting the virus.

Idiotic myths circulated on YouTube, the strangest being that if you convert to Islam you’ll be protected. But the early advice from America’s top medical experts was pretty sketchy, too. At the White House, Vice President Mike Pence said there was “no need for Americans to buy masks.” As Pence spoke, he was flanked by the top health experts in government, including CDC Director Robert Redfield, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx, and Anthony Fauci, the National Institutes of Health’s top virologist. Four days later, Fauci said something similar to CBS’s “60 Minutes.”

“There’s no reason to be walking around with a mask,” he said. “When you’re in the middle of an outbreak, wearing a mask might make people feel a little bit better and it might even block a droplet, but it’s not providing the perfect protection that people think that it is. And, often, there are unintended consequences -- people keep fiddling with the mask and they keep touching their face.”

These comments were later used against Fauci, but if you parse his sentences carefully, it’s clear that both he and Pence weren’t exactly saying that masks aren’t effective. In the first place, they seem to have worried that Americans would hoard masks, making them hard to procure for health care workers and others on the front lines. Fauci was also clearly worried that Americans would put themselves at risk by not wearing masks properly.

By April 3, the CDC had updated this guidance, but was it a fatal mistake to not trust Americans more from the beginning? Well, there’s evidence for that pro and con, as one can see in Texas this very week. A year ago, almost all of us were in “the fog of war.” Hardly anyone anticipated the level of human carnage and economic disruption that lay ahead. But if you listened carefully, a hint came from the other Washington -- Washington state -- where local health officials provided a glimpse, albeit a hazy one, of what lay ahead.

Businesses in the Seattle area were urged by public health officials to stagger work schedules to reduce crowding on mass transit. At a press conference, the King County Public Health Department director went further, urging those holding conferences or any kinds of community events to postpone them. “If you can feasibly avoid large groups of people together,” she said, “consider postponing those meetings.” 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

Show comments Hide Comments