At 6:30 pm on Wednesday, President Donald Trump and a team of senior officials involved in coronavirus preparedness held a press conference to reassure the public that, well, everything is going fine.
Trump talked about how there’d been only 15 cases in the US so far, adding, “The threat to America is low.”
“Our containment strategy has been working,” Alex Azar, Health and Human Services secretary and chairman of the coronavirus task force, said.
But as they spoke, the Washington Post reported a new milestone in the novel coronavirus outbreak: A new person has been diagnosed with the virus in Northern California — and they had not travelled to any of the affected regions of the world, nor had known contact with anyone else who did.
Officials don’t yet know how the person was exposed, and have begun tracing the person’s contacts in order to determine how they got sick.
The new case marks the first instance of a novel coronavirus infection in the US that seemingly isn’t tied to cases overseas. It suggests the coronavirus may now be spreading in the country, person-to-person — with this person just the first to be symptomatic, seek medical care, and test positive.
Some public health experts involved in the national response to coronavirus knew this milestone was likely coming.
Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said Tuesday, “We expect we will see community spread in this country. It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”
That claim reportedly infuriated Trump.
I’m told the president’s anger about the CDC briefing yesterday is focused on Dr. Nancy Messonnier, who said it’s not whether, it’s when the virus will hit the US. “She never should have said that,” a senior administration official told me. “it’s bad.”— Eamon Javers (@EamonJavers) February 26, 2020
Less than 24 hours later, the claim has been vindicated with the report that potential community transmission within the US has now been detected.
The timing of that announcement — during a press conference during which the president and his advisers were assuring the American public that the situation is under control, that containment is working, and that the threat is low — is, on one level, just an unfortunate coincidence.
But in another sense, it reflects an ongoing problem in the government’s pandemic response.
As my colleague Matt Yglesias wrote Tuesday, “The Covid-19 outbreak ... is a reminder that it remains a scary world and that the American government deals with a lot of important, complicated challenges that aren’t particularly ideological in nature. And we have no reason to believe the current president is up to the job.”
So far, the administration’s coronavirus response has been disorganized, with no single official having authority over the US response. Different departments have clashed over whether to take sick Americans back to the US from Japan on the same plane as healthy ones. Trump reportedly wasn’t even told about that decision.
Trump announced during the press conference that Vice President Mike Pence will be heading up the government’s response, but stated that he was not the “czar,” and it remains unclear what the chain of command will be. There have also been problems with faulty tests for the virus. No one on the White House response team at the press conference seemed to know details about the new Northern California coronavirus case.
Now that community transmission of the novel coronavirus within the United States has begun, we can’t afford such disorganization.
Listen to Today, Explained
Covid-19 may be on the brink of becoming a pandemic. Vox’s Julia Belluz explains what that p-word means and Brian Resnick breaks down what an outbreak response might look like in the United States.
Sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter and we’ll send you a roundup of ideas and solutions for tackling the world’s biggest challenges — and how to get better at doing good.
Future Perfect is funded in part by individual contributions, grants, and sponsorships. Learn more here.