Since January, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray has been acutely frustrated as the novel coronavirus came to U.S. shores first in her home state in mid-January, erupting later in deadly fashion at a Kirkland senior living home and subsequently disrupting lives, schools and businesses.
If the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee can’t get crucial answers to questions about the federal response to the unfolding coronavirus pandemic, who can?
“We have made some really big mistakes as a country getting ready for this,” Murray said Friday, as her constituents in Puget Sound buckled down under new sweeping public health orders from state and local officials.
In Thursday testimony before a House committee, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top National Institutes of Health infectious disease expert, acknowledged as much: “The system is not really geared to what we need right now. That is a failing. It is a failing, let’s admit it.”
While the priority remains limiting the spread of the virus, Murray has her eye on the horizon, too. She wants to make sure that the U.S. will never again be lagging the world in response to a pandemic.
She suggests a federal investigative commission should be established to fully examine the missteps and make recommendations about policies and funding to shore up the nation’s pandemic response system.
The model could be similar to the 9/11 Commission, a bipartisan group of distinguished Americans who examined the threads that not only led to the 2001 terrorist attacks but also the communication failings of U.S. Intelligence agencies.
These are vastly different circumstances to be sure, but the pandemic’s cost to human life, public health and the U.S. economy promises to be disruptive on a widespread scale.
After all, if testing had ramped up more quickly in our region, state officials would have known much sooner that the virus was caroming among Puget Sound residents with no connection to China — a crucial level beyond the first case of a man who had just returned from travel to Wuhan.
For that revelation, thank the sense of duty of infectious disease researchers at the Seattle Flu Study who, against regulations, retroactively tested samples collected from January. They found the bug.
As The New York Times reported, they made the decision to share the results with public-health officials, who helped to shape the state and local response last week. Large gatherings over 250 were banned in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties. Schools were ordered to close for six weeks in those three counties on Thursday. By Friday, the order extended across the state. King County set up guidelines for smaller groups as well.
Murray has been on the case for weeks.
While the world was focused on coverage of the impeachment of President Donald Trump, on Jan. 24, she, Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and their HELP Committee colleagues were quizzing administration officials, including some from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about the troubling news of this new virus coming out of China.
The CDC director assured senators the tests would be ready when needed. “I felt it was a very laid-back approach,” Murray told The Times editorial board Friday.
Ten days later, another hearing and more promises. “How many? And when?” Murray asked about the tests. Over the next weeks, officials seemed to be all but pulling numbers out of the air — there would be 50,000 tests. Vice President Mike Pence promised 5 million. And all of the promises seemed directly to contradict the experience Murray was hearing about from constituents, friends, family and health officials in her home state, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak.
“The numbers were in and out, up and down and not truthful from the start,” Murray said. “I told them to quit telling people the tests are available when they are not.”
Meanwhile, Americans were hearing about South Korea testing thousands of people; actor Tom Hanks reported he and wife Rita Wilson had tested positive and were recovering — not in Hollywood but Australia, where testing is widespread.
Friday afternoon, President Trump declared a national emergency to combat coronavirus, with a commitment to free up $50 billion to expedite testing and accessibility around the country. Leaders of private lab companies and drugstore chains detailed their commitment to participate in helping with health-care access.
Those steps are promising. Let’s just hope they are not more idle promises. Too much is at stake.