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Senate report highlights systemic issues behind early missteps in COVID response

From the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak in China to the first wave of infections in the US in 2020, a new report authored by Senate Democrats released Thursday criticized initial efforts to curb the virus as ” one of the worst public results”. Health Responses in American History”.

Drawn from interviews and documents by key former officials from across the administration, the 242-page report by Democrats in the Committee on Governmental Affairs and Homeland Security is just the latest to try to shed new light on territory already trodden by a cascade of flashbacks. .

Along with some federal agencies’ own internal calculations, the committee joins a crowded field that includes the National Academiesthe Government Accounting Officeand partner Democrats in the House who have tried to retrace the missteps of the pandemic.

While some of the details are new, the report’s authors acknowledge that several of their final findings stem from known systemic problems long before President Donald Trump took office.

“Many of the issues identified as part of the initial federal response are long-standing and remain unresolved. For decades, underfunding across multiple administrations has affected the preparedness and response capabilities of federal agencies, reducing sustainable investments in the public health preparedness,” the report authors write. .

In addition to calling for “sustainable multi-year funding” for public health preparedness and response, the committee report also calls for restructuring and reforms to clarify chains of command. It also highlights gaps in federal authority to resolve supply chain issues and collect data on the disease.

The report does not offer a price tag for implementing all of its recommendations. Senator Gary Peters, the committee’s chairman, said new legislation would need to be written to implement some of his recommendations.

“We have to learn from the mistakes that were made, and clearly there were many. There was a loss of life that never should have happened, if we had been properly prepared and, more importantly, if it had been executed with more proficiency than we expected. saw,” Peters told reporters Wednesday ahead of its release.

Peters, a Michigan Democrat, had tasked committee staff with investigating the efforts of the federal government from late 2019 through March 2020.

Peters said the committee planned to continue issuing reports investigating the later stages of the pandemic response. He also welcomed other efforts to examine the federal government’s efforts against COVID-19, including a proposed 9/11-style commission.

“Clearly, we have to keep moving forward, and you’ll see future reports coming out about what happened during the pandemic, but you’ll also see specific actions. I’m not a guy who wants to have a report and then it collects dust on the shelf,” Peters added.

“There is no such intelligence” and chaotic communication

Beyond the Department of Homeland Security, which the committee normally exercises supervision In the end, the report also examined federal efforts in the intelligence community, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Health and Human Services.

The report documents blind spots from the earliest moments of the outbreak in those departments.

For example, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the military, Homeland Security and intelligence communities told the committee that no classified intelligence alerted them to the growing threat posed by the virus as it spread. it began to spread in China in late 2019, the report says.

All agencies learned of the outbreak through the same infamous publicly translated news report. on the ProMED email list on December 30 of that year, the committee report says, and they were slow to understand the threat.

“The DOD also told the Committee that news reporting claims that such warnings were passed through an intelligence briefing to the Pentagon Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Council, the White House, and the Daily Report of the president were also incorrect. There is no such intelligence product or report,” the report reads.

As infections spiked, an already muddled chain of command was made worse by hasty changes in who was in charge and attempts by the White House to wrest control.

Images obtained by the committee help illustrate the challenges officials faced, such as a messy whiteboard photographed by a Federal Emergency Management Agency official as he tried to map out roles across the federal government. Text messages between Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and his deputy illustrate the unbalanced decision-making structure as FEMA replaced HHS at the forefront of the response.

“Again, just to be clear from now on, I will give you suggestions or ideas and clear the barriers here, but anything you say is not an order. Everything is subject to FEMA processes,” Azar wrote on September 20. March to Robert Kadlec, his Under Secretary for Preparedness and Response.

Some disagreements still linger among federal staff years later, according to interview responses released by the committee.

One such dispute within the CDC, according to the committee, centers on problems with coronavirus test kits the agency produced in the early days of the U.S. outbreak. Some agency scientists disagree with the “public stance” that blames contamination and poor design for test failures.

“While public reports suggest a consensus as to the cause of the CDC test kit failure, the information obtained by the Committee indicates that there were and continue to be conflicting internal accounts of not only what went wrong, but also what reasons for those failures,” the report states. .

The report also highlights some successes, such as the initiative known as Operation Warp Speed, which worked with the private sector to develop vaccines in record time. And he praises the dedication of frontline health care workers who “saved countless lives.”

Some reforms underway

The report’s recommendations come at a time when the Biden administration has already begun accelerating its own reform plans.

Some changes, such as an elevated role for the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response to manage emergency drug and vaccine supplies, have already been introduced in response to the global outbreak of mpox, formerly known as monkeypoxat the beginning of this year.

The CDC is also in the midst of an extensive internal process reorganization ordered by its director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, earlier this year.

At a recent meeting of one of the agency’s external advisory panels, CDC officials said a plan to reorganize the strike teams formed for an internal “Moving Forward” initiative will be finalized in the coming days.

“We are currently reviewing the initial proposals. We hope to have more of this solidified by the end of this month and begin further implementation in early January,” said Jim Macrae, one of the federal officials Walensky’s handpicked to spearhead the reforms. he said he Wednesday.

However, federal officials have said that many of the changes they have sought will require funding and legislation from Congress.

“I’ve been doing a lot of work in Congress. I was there today to say that there is an assumption that we have those authorities,” Walensky said at a meeting Wednesday. event organized by the Milken Institute.

“There have been a lot of articles written about ‘CDC is not sharing the data on X.’ And I’m just like, ‘wow, I’d love to share the data on X, I’d love to have the data on X so I could share it with you,'” Walensky said.

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