Donald Trump will address the public on Wednesday night to discuss the government’s response to coronavirus, which US health officials say has entered a new phase.
The president has expressed optimism, but that does not mesh with warnings from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that the respiratory illness is likely to cause “severe disruption” to the lives of ordinary Americans.
Trump has complained without evidence that the news media is “doing everything possible” to make coronavirus “look as bad as possible”, while he has praised his administration’s response. Despite his rosy picture of the administration’s work, serious concerns have been raised about its response so far.
The top questions for Trump before his remarks include:
How is the US monitoring the outbreak?
The government distributed faulty test kits and public health experts are increasingly concerned the lack of testing is misrepresenting the spread of coronavirus in the US.
Test kits have not been widely distributed to hospitals or medical labs and the kits that have been sent out must be sent back to the CDC in Atlanta to confirm results.
While South Korea has tested more than 35,000 people for coronavirus, the US has tested 426 people, excluding those returned on evacuation flights, according to the Washington Post.
As of now, the US recommends testing only for people who display respiratory symptoms and have recently traveled to China or had close contact with an infected person. The CDC is considering expanding the testing protocol to include people traveling to the US from countries beyond mainland China.
Jeremy Konyndyk, who led the Obama administration’s response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014, told the Guardian this week the US does not have a fully mobilized response to testing for coronavirus. “It is puzzling to me that the government has been unable so far to resolve that problem, at a time when most other countries that are facing the disease have been able to do testing at a much larger scale,” said Konyndyk.
Who is in charge?
According to the White House, the coronavirus response is in the hands of the health secretary, Alex Azar.
During the Ebola crisis, Barack Obama’s administration established a post to oversee the government’s response in case the outbreak turned into a pandemic. Lawmakers and health experts have called for a similar post to be made in the Trump White House for coronavirus.
Ronald Klain, who held the Ebola position under Obama, told the New York Times: “One cabinet secretary cannot run an interagency response. Azar has the biggest civilian job in the American government. Is he doing this in his spare time?”
On Wednesday, the White House deputy press secretary, Judd Deere, said on Twitter that a report the White House is considering appointing a coronavirus czar “is not true!”
In May, the Trump administration scrapped a position created after Klain’s departure to coordinate similar responses in the future: senior director for global health security and biothreats on the national security council (NSC). Last week, 27 senators wrote a letter to Trump asking him to quickly fill the job.
The Pulitzer-prize-winning science writer Laurie Garrett said the federal government had “intentionally rendered itself incapable” of responding to the outbreak.
“In numerous phone calls and emails with key agencies across the US government, the only consistent response I encountered was distressed confusion,” Garrett said. “If the United States still has a clear chain of command for pandemic response, the White House urgently needs to clarify what it is – not just for the public but for the government itself, which largely finds itself in the dark.”
How much money is available?
The US is entering this phase of the coronavirus outbreak after repeated attempts by the federal government to drastically cut CDC funding. Congress has mostly blocked this from happening, though the Trump administration successfully cut its global epidemic work from 49 countries to 10.
Among the countries where CDC efforts were scaled back were Haiti, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as China, where the agency provided technical assistance.
Now, the White House has requested $1.25bn in new emergency funding and to divert another $1.25bn from existing federal programs. The Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, a critic of the administration’s response to coronavirus, on Wednesday requested $8.5bn.
Does the US have enough equipment?
Azar told a Senate panel on Tuesday that the federal government had a stockpile of 30m masks but could need 300m for health workers.
Stores are also reporting shortages of the N95 respirator mask, which doctors recommend for people who are sick instead of surgical-type masks. Doctors have cautioned even the N95 has limited efficacy because it needs to be fit-tested, which many people aren’t qualified to handle on their own.
Can the president instill confidence?
Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary under George W Bush, said he didn’t understand why the CDC’s Tuesday announcement was made without coordination with the White House.
“There should have been an Oval Office meeting, a statement by Potus about protecting people, and then a press avail by experts,” Fleischer said. “Bizarre.”
Amid increasingly serious messages about the outbreak, Trump has repeatedly cast an optimistic light on US preparedness. On Tuesday, he said the US was “very close” to a vaccine, before the White House backtracked on the remarks and said he was referring to an Ebola vaccine approved two months ago.
And while the administration appears focused on downplaying coronavirus because of its impact on the economy, the S&P 500 closed down 3% on Tuesday, after its worst one-day slide in two years on Monday.