WASHINGTON (AP) — For several months, President Donald Trump and his officials have cast a fog of promises meant to reassure a country in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic. Trump and his team haven't delivered on critical ones.
They talk numbers. Bewildering numbers about masks on the way. About tests being taken. About ships sailing to the rescue, breathing machines being built, aircraft laden with supplies from abroad, dollars flowing to crippled businesses.
Piercing that fog is the reality that Americans are going without the medical supplies and much of the financial help they most need from the government at the very time they need it most — and were told they'd have it.
The U.S. now is at or near the height of COVID-19 sickness and death, experts believe.
There's no question that on major fronts, the federal government is pushing hard now to get up to speed. But in large measure the supplies will arrive on the down slope of the pandemic, putting the U.S. in a better position should the same virus strike again while landing too late for this outbreak's lethal curve.
Concerning ventilators, for example, Trump recently allowed: “A lot of them will be coming at a time when we won’t need them as badly."
The U.S. testing system, key to containing infection, has been a failure in the crunch, as public health authorities (but never Trump) acknowledged in March.
A newly deployed rapid test could help change that. But it's not ready for actual use in great numbers. New Hampshire, for one, received 15 rapid-test machines but only enough cartridges to run two. “I’m banging my head against the wall," Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said Wednesday.
False starts and dead ends are inevitable in any crisis, especially one driven by a new virus. But bold promises have flowed day after day from a president who minimized the danger for months and exaggerates what Washington is doing about it.
MASKS, GLOVES, GOWNS
Doctors, nurses, flight attendants and other front-line workers have had to go begging for hospital staples: masks, gloves, other protective garb.
The mere scale of the pandemic stretched supplies even in better prepared countries. Yet the enduring shortages in the U.S. are not just from a lack of foresight, but also from hesitancy as the pandemic started to sicken and kill Americans.
It was not until mid-March, when some hospitals were already treating thousands of infected patients without enough equipment, that the government placed bulk orders for N95 masks and other necessities for its stockpile, The Associated Press reported. Washington dithered on supplies for two months after global alarm bells rang about a coming pandemic in January.
And the Strategic National Stockpile maxed out days ago, before the pandemic's U.S. peak.
“Anybody that needs a test, gets a test," Trump said on March 6. "They have the tests. And the tests are beautiful.” He said the same day, “Anybody that wants a test can get a test.”
The greatly expanding but still vastly insufficient capacity to test people is steered mostly to those who are already sick or to essential workers at the most risk of exposure.
Within three weeks of China's New Year's Eve notification of mysterious pneumonia cases, China had sequenced the genetic makeup of the virus, German scientists had developed a test for detecting it and the World Health Organization had adopted the test and moved toward global distribution.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention bypassed the WHO. test and sponsored its own, which was flawed out of the gate. Trump said the WHO test was flawed but it wasn't.
Precious time was lost.
Germany, in contrast, raced ahead with aggressive testing of a broad segment of the population when it had fewer than 10 cases in January. It has experienced far fewer deaths proportionally than the United States.
“There were many, many opportunities not to end up where we are,” Dr. Ashish K. Jha, director of the Global Health Institute at Harvard, told AP.
Trump told Americans March 13 that a division of Google's parent company was coming out with a website that would let people determine online if they should get a test and, if so, swing by a nearby place to get one. “It’s going to be very quickly done,” he said. The website is operational in just four California counties.
Drive-through sites that he promised would expedite testing were plagued with shortages and delays, such that many people with symptoms and a doctor's order were turned away.
Trump invoked the Defense Production Act, empowering him to order companies to make what the country needs. This raised expectations that a new wave of emergency supplies generally and ventilators in particular could come to the aid of patients and the people looking after them.
Under the president's “vigorous, swift” order to General Motors, said Peter Navarro, White House point man on the emergency supply chain, new ventilators would be ready in “Trump time, which is to say as fast as possible.”
Yet Trump has held off on using his full powers. A directive to GM on ventilator manufacturing essentially told the company to do what it was already doing.
The ventilator shortfall has been the most frightening deficiency as more people get infected and die by the hour. In the current chaos, the size of the shortfall nationally is not known.
WHERE'S THE MONEY?
“This will deliver urgently needed relief,” Trump said in signing an economic rescue package into law.
More than two weeks later, only a small fraction of business loans has been delivered. A website problem, delays in federal action and confusion among lenders and borrowers have slowed the aid. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had predicted same-day turnaround of applications and loans.
Yet because of pending loans, Congress is already having to find more money to help businesses cover payroll.
Meantime state officials are slammed as they try to administer expanded jobless benefits that Washington is paying for but having states manage.
Associated Press writers Amanda Seitz in Chicago, Matthew Perrone and Michael Biesecker in Washington and Ken Sweet in New York contributed to this report.
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