President Trump: Pandemic warrior


September 18, 2020

Just before Donald Trump was sworn in as our 45th president, outgoing president Barack Obama told him his biggest problem would be North Korea.  Obama was wrong! North Korea, though problematic, proved less troublesome than expected, due to President Trump’s skillful handling of its volatile leader, Kim Jung Un.

President Trump’s biggest problem, more than Russian collusion investigations and the Democrats’ impeachment effort, all intended to destroy his presidency, was instead a virus from China for which our Centers for Disease Control and Health and Human Services were unprepared. President Trump inherited a CDC lacking systems for large scale testing and an HHS whose supplies of personal protection equipment and ventilators had been depleted in the H1N1 and Ebola epidemics.

Ron Klain, Vice President Biden’s chief of staff in 2009-10, referring to the H1N1 epidemic, said: “It is purely a fortuity that this isn’t one of the great mass casualty events in American history. It had nothing to do with us doing anything right. It just had to do with luck. If anyone thinks this can’t happen again, they don’t have to go back to 1918, they just have to go back to 2009, 2010 and imagine a virus with a different lethality and you can just do the math on that.”

Prophetic words! Notwithstanding their awareness of the potential for disaster, the Obama-Biden administration chose not to replenish the PPE stockpile.

On entering office, President Trump’s top priorities were 1) growing our economy to increase employment, 2) rebuilding our depleted armed forces, and 3) reducing illegal immigration and the related problems of gang crime, human trafficking, drug smuggling, and taking jobs from American citizens. He negotiated a new US-Mexico-Canada trade deal, reduced taxes and regulations, and reformed criminal justice. You could argue that along with all this and fighting efforts to destroy his presidency, preparing for a possible epidemic should have been on Trump’s “front burner,” but is this realistic?

The virus broke out in Wuhan, China in November 2019. The UN’s World Health Organization says Chinese authorities first informed it about the outbreak on Dec. 31. On Jan. 12, the WHO said there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.” On Jan. 17, our CDC began screening travelers from Wuhan coming to New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco airports. This was before China confirmed human-to-human transmission on Jan. 20. On Jan. 23, China put Wuhan on lockdown, after 5 million people left the city, according to its mayor. On Jan. 28, the WHO urged the world “to remain calm and not to overreact.” Nevertheless, on Jan. 31, President Trump, on the advice of U.S. medical experts, forbid foreigners who had been in China from coming to the U.S.

Joe Biden called President Trump’s action “xenophobic.” On Feb. 3, the WHO opposed travel bans, saying that measures which would “unnecessarily interfere with travel and trade” weren’t needed. Our foremost epidemiologist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has served since the 1980s, under both Democrats and Republicans, told Congress the China travel ban, and President Trump’s later UK travel ban, saved American lives. He said he and the president agreed on those and on federal “slow the spread” guidelines.

President Trump, while being impeached, quickly formed a team to deal with the epidemic, led by Vice President Pence. The team analyzed information, kept the public informed in frequent briefings and accelerated approvals of tests. It advised state governments and issued guidelines, as is appropriate under our constitution, which limits federal power to give orders to states.

Under President Trump’s direction, the team combated the virus. It fast-tracked FDA approval of 3M construction masks for medical use and got 3M to increase production. It got companies to produce new testing equipment and organized business-government partnerships to produce and transport supplies. It got retailers to create test sites and large commercial labs to process tests in high volume. It also fast-tracked approval of an innovative mask sterilization system.

One notorious “sore point,” in early weeks of the crisis, was the need for ventilators. States demanded many more than were ever used. In response, President Trump’s team mobilized companies to convert factories to produce ventilators. In the end, no U.S. patient who needed a ventilator went without. We are now exporting ventilators!

In accordance with our constitution, President Trump respected state governors’ broad discretion concerning stay-home orders and the closing and reopening of schools and businesses. He supported state requests. He used the Army Corps of Engineers to build field hospitals to treat general needs so local hospitals could care for virus patients. One such field hospital, in New York’s Javits Center, was converted to a covid hospital when requested but was barely used. President Trump sent hospital ships to California and New York — mostly unused in the latter case.

President Trump established Operation Warp Speed, allocating billions to the development of treatments and production of vaccines, and mobilizing resources, including the military, for rapid distribution of vaccines upon approval. Never, since World War II, has a president shown such crisis leadership. He deserves our votes!

Rabbi Sanford Olshansky is a member of the National Leadership Circle of the Republican Jewish Coalition.


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