Panic swept the nation, no — the world! — as the COVID-19 pandemic spread its fingers into every nook and cranny of the world. Our communities are under great stress as we struggle to reduce the spread of the virus. From social distancing to wearing masks, people are eager to end the pandemic. However, many Americans feel like the initial response from the government was slow and that we could have reacted much sooner and with greater efficiency.
But could we have? What ability does the American government have to handle pandemics? By examining the frameworks currently in place as well as reflecting on past handling, we will grade the performance of the United States’ handling of COVID-19. Before we make any judgments about the government’s response, we should ask, “what is the government’s premade plan for pandemics?”
In 2005, the United States rolled out a new “National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza.” Although influenza differs greatly from COVID-19, the general framework behind government preparedness and response to pandemics applies to both. The 2005 plan is fairly robust for being disclosed to the public, indicating the various phases handling a pandemic will take as well as advice for the entire country on how to proceed. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website provides access to its “Pandemic Intervals Framework (PIF).” The PIF names and defines six phases of a pandemic and what the government’s role is in each phase at both a local and federal level. The six phases in order are “Investigation, Recognition, Initiation, Acceleration, Deceleration, [and] Preparation.” The CDC evaluates the risks a potential strain of influenza poses to society. If and when the strain becomes a pandemic, the CDC will then work to minimize loss of life while preparing for future pandemic waves.
These existing systems were put to the test due to the high level of activity and severe number of cases during the 2017-2018 flu season. This Influenza epidemic was a recent warning to the government that we would not be prepared for something more serious. Ever since the Sept. 11 attacks, the US government has poured funding into public health to protect the country against bioterrorism and pandemics. However, over the years, much of this funding has been allocated toward other ventures, taking a focus away from pandemic preparedness.
Even with this plan in place, there are other social factors that chokehold the country’s ability to deal with novel viruses. Doctor Jonathan D. Quick, a professor of global health at Duke University and physician who specializes in public health management, has spread awareness for the advancement of public health and pandemic preparedness in many of his publications. In a 2018 TIME magazine article, Dr. Quick discusses how Americans can grow complacent when pandemic waves subside, using flu outbreaks as an example. Dr. Quick said, “as soon as headlines about the flu are gone, hospitals are emptied of flu patients, schools are back in session and workplace absenteeism declines, we go back to business as usual.”
Throughout February, when the coronavirus began its march to the Western Hemisphere, many people were unafraid of the “flu-like” symptoms and believed the virus would act out like another familiar strain of the flu. With news that COVID-19 had a low mortality rate for children, teens and young adults, entire generations of people were emboldened with confidence that this would be a low threat to our health. My classmates were no exception and while we saw the news of the virus ever-encroaching toward us we brushed it off because we would be less affected.
With multiple countries shutting down entire cities, a pandemic became likely. The naive confidence of many Americans even persisted in government officials which only made the general population less afraid. Because of this error in judgment, the virus exploded in the US. Many Americans don’t take the flu very seriously, and initial talk of COVID-19 seeming similar to the flu may be one factor that prevented us from tackling COVID-19 in its earlier stages. Unfortunately, we haven’t learned from past mistakes. When the infamous 1918 flu pandemic reached the American continent, it ravaged naval and army bases and installations.
One city particularly affected was Philadelphia. Wilmer Krusen, Philadelphia’s public health director, was unaware of the flu’s severity. On Sept. 19, the flu arrived via sick soldiers coming back from Europe and entering the Philadelphia Navy Yard. While many physicians were wary of the disease reaching the city, Krusen decided to allow business as usual. On Sept. 28, 9 days after the arrival of the flu to Philadelphia, the Liberty Loans Parade was held to support war efforts. At the time, it was the largest parade in Philadephia’s history, amassing large crowds of up to 200,000 spectators. Unfortunately, a day later, every hospital in Philadelphia was completely packed with flu patients. Many thousands more would continue to get infected and die. Even still, politicians clamored for the end of stay-at-home orders and didn’t take the virus seriously despite new cases and a growing death toll.
The results of this behavior are self-evident. An almost complete opposite response to Philadelphia was the city of St. Louis, MO. When signs of the flu pandemic first showed, the St. Louis administration enforced stay-at-home orders. Led by health commissioner Dr. Max Starkoff, the city banned public gatherings and closed all public buildings, especially schools. Thousands of patients were treated by volunteer nurses in their own homes and St. Louis’ infection curve was successfully flattened. Even under fire from small business owners, the administration held its ground. The results were exactly what anyone could ever hope for.
This type of action was not present in America’s response to COVID-19. Setting aside the sheer delay it took to take the virus seriously, the response was lackluster. Swift, decisive, and accurate action is needed to combat the lack of funding and cultural inaction but of course the actual virus itself. Of course, COVID-19 is a respiratory infection, which requires much more equipment than influenza, however, the response time and effect of the response is what is under scrutiny.
Researching responses to pandemics in history has been eye-opening. Despite the championing of an education in world and American history to learn from past mistakes, the country is proving itself to be forgetful and naive, continuing to fall into the same pits as before.