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America’s COVID-19 Debacle: A Chronology

Originally published June 15, 2020, and most recently updated July 9, 2020.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across the globe, no country has been hit harder than the United States. America leads the world in Covid-19 deaths and confirmed cases. Unemployment has reached levels not seen since the Great Depression, and national output has cratered as lockdowns have put the formerly robust  U.S. economy into a self-induced coma. 

At this writing, more than 117,000 Americans have been killed by the virus, nearly three times as many fatalities as Brazil, which has just overtaken the United Kingdom to rank second in virus-related deaths. The United States accounts for about 27 percent of  global deaths. We have nearly 2.2 million confirmed Covid-19 cases, more than twice as many as Brazil (852,000 cases).

Since mid-March, when the shutdown began, 44 million Americans have filed for state unemployment benefits. Untold numbers of small businesses have gone under, and many more are treading water. The U.S. economy shrank by 4.8 percent in the first quarter of 2020, and economists forecast that U.S. output could decline by an annualized rate of 40 percent in the second quarter. 

It is also worth noting that the pandemic has injured some groups more than others. Most vulnerable have been older Americans, health care workers and those, often immigrants, working in “essential” industries like meat-packing and chicken-processing. Black Americans have suffered disproportionately, as have minority-owned businesses. In general, layoffs have been heaviest in low-paid service jobs, while office workers have often been able to keep working remotely.

Then there are the astronomical costs of the federal government’s necessary response to this national emergency. Congress so far has passed three large major relief bills, with more in the works. Thus far, Washington has spent $3 trillion and could be headed toward an annual deficit of $5 trillion or more, the largest since World War II

No one expected the United States to escape the ravages of Covid-19 unscathed. But the enormous scale of our human and economic losses was not inevitable. Other countries have managed the Covid-19 crisis far more effectively. For example, South Korea, which reported its first case of infection on the same day as the United States, reports less than 300 deaths and just over 11,000 cases. 

Other strong performers against the virus include Germany, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore. These countries took early and decisive action to contain the pandemic. They have used aggressive testing and contact tracing to isolate the people at the highest risk of transmitting or catching Covid-19. This has enabled them to practice social distancing more selectively than we have, which in turn allows them to keep more of their economies up and running. They suffered nothing like the losses our country has experienced. 

The comparison with China is particularly striking. Coronavirus originated in China, which has roughly one billion more people than the United States. Yet if official figures are to be believed, China has had only 83,413 cases of Covid-19, and 4,634 deaths — figures the ruling Communist Party uses to tout the superiority of its autocratic governing model over liberal democracy. 

The Covid-19 crisis has posed a kind of “governance stress test” to countries around the world. It is casting a remorseless light on the quality of each country’s political leadership and the competence of its national government. 

As they now weigh the risks of returning to school and work, Americans have a right to ask: Why has our country, the richest, most technologically advanced in the world, managed the coronavirus pandemic so badly? 

Comparing America’s performance with that of other countries, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama concludes that President Donald Trump proved incapable of rising to the challenge:  

It was the country’s singular misfortune to have the most incompetent and divisive leader in its modern history at the helm when the crisis hit, and his mode of governance did not change under pressure. Having spent his term at war with the state he heads, he was unable to deploy it effectively when the situation demanded. Having judged that his political fortunes were best served by confrontation and rancor than national unity, he has used the crisis to pick fights and increase social cleavages. American underperformance during the pandemic has several causes, but the most significant has been a national leader who has failed to lead.

Despite ample early warnings that America would likely face a contagious disease at some point in its tenure, the Trump administration was utterly unprepared for the outbreak of coronavirus last December. As the disease spread from China, the president at first refused to take it seriously. This cost the United States precious weeks when the federal government should have been taking vigorous action to contain the pandemic. The delay was deadly: Had the country started social distancing and locking down on March 1 rather than March 14, 54,000 fewer Americans would have died, according to disease modelers at Columbia University. 

Even after President Trump grudgingly acknowledged the severity of the pandemic, he failed to mobilize the federal government’s resources to contain its spread, or even to provide the public reliable information about the disease. Passing the buck to governors, he refused to marshal his full executive powers to make and deliver masks and other protective equipment, produce a sufficient supply of tests and ventilators, and charge federal health agencies with helping the states set up rigorous contact tracing systems. 

“The president stoked division rather than promoting unity, politicized the distribution of aid, pushed responsibility onto governments for making key decisions while encouraging protests against them for protecting public health, and attacking international institutions rather than galvanizing them,” Fukuyama notes. “The world can watch TV, too, and has stood by in amazement, with China quick to make the comparison clear.”

Now, with an eye to the upcoming November election, President Trump and his party are trying to shift the blame to China, and to convince the public the debacle they have been witnessing is a mirage. 

To enable Americans to judge for themselves, the Progressive Policy Institute has assembled this comprehensive and thoroughly documented chronology of key events and milestones to date in the Covid-19 crisis. As it continues to unfold, we will update this historical record as necessary. If readers think we have missed any important events or information, please notify us at info@ppionline.org

2017

JANUARY 12 – Speaking at Georgetown University, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases, urges the incoming Trump administration to be prepared for outbreaks of viral diseases. “If there’s one message that I want to leave with you today based on my experience, it is that there is no question that there will be a challenge to the coming administration in the arena of infectious diseases.” 

JANUARY 13 – Outgoing Obama administration officials run a crisis simulation for President-elect Trump’s national security team on how to react to the outbreak of a deadly respiratory disease. 

The incoming administration is also given a 69-page playbook with best practices for handling global pandemics.

MAY 11 – Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence, reports to Congress about threats to the United States, including global pandemics. 

MAY 27 – In his first budget, President Trump proposes a $1.3 billion cut in the Center for Disease Control (CDC) for 2018. In each year of his presidency, President Trump has proposed similar cuts to the CDC’s funding. (2019) (2020) (2021)

2018

FEBRUARY 13 – DNI Coats again warns Congress about the threat of a global pandemic.

APRIL 10 – Tom Bossert, White House homeland security advisor, resigns at the request of National Security Advisor John Bolton. Bossert had repeatedly called for a comprehensive biodefense strategy against pandemics and biological attacks. 

MAY 7 – Speaking at Emory University to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1918 influenza pandemic, Luciana Borio, the National Security Council’s Director of Medical and Biodefense preparedness, warns “The threat of pandemic flu is the number one health security concern. Are we ready to respond? I fear the answer is no.” 

MAY 8 – President Trump calls for cuts in emergency funds for Ebola and other pandemics, as well as the State Department’s Complex Crisis Fund for “emerging or unforeseen crises.”

MAY 10 – As part of his effort to “streamline” the National Security Council, Bolton disbands the Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense and removes its director, Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer. 

OCTOBER 19 – “In a move that worries public health experts,” the New York Times reports, “the federal government is quietly shutting down a surveillance program for dangerous animal viruses that someday may infect humans.” 

2019

JANUARY 29 – DNI Coats again warns Congress that the United States remains “vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, strain international resources, and increase calls on the United States for support.”

JULY 28 – DNI Coats, who had publicly differed with President Trump over Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, steps down.

SEPTEMBER 15 – The President’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) warns that an influenza pandemic could cause enormous health and economic losses. 

OCTOBER 1 – The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issues a draft report on a series of exercises code-named “Crimson Contagion.” The report warns that the federal government is “underfunded, underprepared and uncoordinated” to fight an influenza pandemic. 

DECEMBER 31 – China reports the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) to the World Health Organization.

2020

JANUARY 6 – The CDC issues a travel notice for Wuhan, China following reports of the outbreak of a new infectious disease.

JANUARY 10 – Chinese state media reports first death in China due to the novel coronavirus. 

JANUARY 18 – HHS Secretary Alex Azar warns President Trump of the possibility of a pandemic stemming from the outbreak in China. 

JANUARY 21 – The CDC reports the first coronavirus case in the United States: An unidentified Washington State man, in his early 30s who recently had traveled to Wuhan. 

JANUARY 22 – In an interview in Davos, Switzerland, President Trump dismisses concerns about the coronavirus, saying “We have it totally under control.”

JANUARY 22 – White House officials turn down an offer to buy millions of N95 masks manufactured in America, according to the manufacturer. 

JANUARY 24 – President Trump congratulates Chinese President Xi on his handling of the outbreak in Wuhan, tweeting: “The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency.”

JANUARY 29 – White House advisor Peter Navarro circulates a memo outlining the risks of coronavirus contagion. It estimates that, in a worst-case scenario, a pandemic could claim up to 500,000 U.S. lives and cost close to $6 trillion.

JANUARY 30 – Amid serious outbreaks in Italy and China, the World Health Organization (WHO) declares Covid-19 a global public health emergency. 

JANUARY 30 – HHS Secretary Azar again warns President Trump of the possibility of a pandemic. The New York Times reports, “Mr. Azar was blunt, warning that the virus could develop into a pandemic and arguing that China should be criticized for failing to be transparent.” 

JANUARY 30 – In a press conference, President Trump assures Americans have little to worry about: “We think we have it very well under control. We have very little problem in this country at this moment — five — and those people are all recuperating successfully.”

JANUARY 31 – President Trump issues an executive order ostensibly banning travel to and from China. 

FEBRUARY 2 – “We pretty much shut it (coronavirus) down coming in from China,” President Trump tells Fox News’s, Sean Hannity.

FEBRUARY 6 – Covid 19 claims its first U.S. victim: Patricia Dowd, 57, of Santa Clara, California. However, this fact isn’t disclosed until after an April 21 autopsy. 

FEBRUARY 8 – Labs receiving coronavirus tests from the CDC start to complain that they don’t work properly. The problem isn’t resolved until weeks later when the FDA waives rules against tests developed elsewhere. 

FEBRUARY 10 – President Trump continues to express confidence in China’s management of the pandemic. He tells governors at the White House that President Xi of China feels “very confident” because “by April or during the month of April, the heat, generally speaking, kills this kind of virus.”

FEBRUARY 23Navarro sends a second memo to President Trump, warning of the “increasing probability of a full-blown Covid-19 pandemic that could infect as many as 100 million Americans, with a loss of life of as many as 1-2 million souls.”

FEBRUARY 24 – “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA,” President Trump tweets.

FEBRUARY 26 – President Trump introduces a White House coronavirus task force, even while continuing to minimize the danger: “The flu, in our country, kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year… And again, when you have 15 [Covid-19 victims], and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”

FEBRUARY 27 – “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear,” President Trump declares in a White House briefing with African American leaders. 

FEBRUARY 29 – Stung by criticism of White House inaction, President Trump tells the press: “We’ve taken the most aggressive actions to confront the coronavirus. They are the most aggressive taken by any country and we’re the number one travel destination anywhere in the world, yet we have far fewer cases of the disease than even countries with much less travel or a much smaller population.”

MARCH 1 – First reported U.S. Covid-19 death in Washington State. The unidentified patient was a man in his 50s with serious health problems.  

MARCH 2 – President Trump predicts that a Covid-19 vaccine is imminent. “I’ve heard very quick numbers, that of months.” This contradicts Dr. Fauci’s repeated warnings that a vaccine may not be available for a year or a year and a half. 

MARCH 6 – At a press briefing, President Trump boasts about his understanding of the coronavirus: “I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. […] Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability.” 

MARCH 6 – “Anybody that wants a test can get a test,” President Trump asserts after touring the CDC headquarters in Atlanta.

MARCH 6 – The Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act — Congress’s first response to the pandemic — becomes law. It provides $8.3 billion in emergency funding for federal agencies to combat coronavirus. 

MARCH 9 – In a tweet, President Trump again compares Covid-19 to the flu: “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!

MARCH 10 – Following a meeting with Republican Senators, President Trump again praises his administration’s handling of Covid-19: “It hit the world. And we’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it.”

MARCH 10 – In a televised address to the nation, President Trump asserts, inaccurately, that Americans won’t have to pay for Covid-19 treatment.

MARCH 11 – In a press briefing, President Trump again downplays the danger of Covid-19. “The vast majority of Americans, the risk is very, very low. Young and healthy people can expect to recover fully and quickly if they should get the virus.”

MARCH 11 – President Trump announces increased travel restrictions for 26 European countries. In practice, however, the order is riddled with loopholes that create long lines for some and zero screening for others. 

MARCH 11 – WHO upgrades Covid-19 from a public health emergency to a global pandemic.

MARCH 11– News reports say that the United States has tested just over 7,000 people for the coronavirus, compared to 222,395 tests conducted in South Korea. Both countries reported their first Covid-19 case on the same day.

MARCH 13 – Asked by a reporter if he would “take responsibility for the failure to disseminate larger quantities of tests earlier,” President Trump replies, “I don’t take responsibility at all.”

MARCH 15 – Thirty-three states plus the District of Columbia close their public schools.

MARCH 16 – President Trump announces self-isolation guidelines for Americans to follow for the next 15 days.

MARCH 16 – President Trump denies understating the danger of Covid-19: “I’ve always known this is a real — this is a pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”

MARCH 17 – U.S. Covid-19 death toll exceeds 100.

MARCH 18 – Congress passes a second relief bill, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. It provides close to $3.5 billion for coronavirus testing, 14-day paid leave for workers affected by the pandemic, and removes work requirements for food stamps.

MARCH 19 – President Trump touts, without evidence, chloroquine, and hydroxychloroquine as a potential cure to Covid-19. 

MARCH 22 – In a flurry of tweets, President Trump voices frustration over governors’ handling of the pandemic. The public, however, expresses far more confidence in their governors than the president in national polls

MARCH 23 – The first nine states implement stay-at-home orders (Washington, Oregon, California, Louisiana, Illinois, Ohio, New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey).

MARCH 23 – The media reports that 48 states plus the District of Columbia have closed their public schools for the rest of the academic year.

MARCH 24In the daily coronavirus task force briefing, President Trump imagines the U.S. economy reopening in a matter of weeks: “I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter… I think Easter Sunday — you’ll have packed churches all over our country.” 

MARCH 25 – In the daily briefing, President Trump claims the United States leads the world in testing. “We have tested, by far, more than anybody…There’s nobody even close. And our tests are the best tests.” On a per-capita basis, however, the United States ranks low on tests. 

MARCH 25 – U.S. Covid-19 death toll passes 1,000. 

MARCH 26 – Twelve more states implement stay-at-home orders (Idaho, Colorado, New Mexico, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Indiana, West Virginia, Hawaii, Connecticut, Vermont, and Delaware).

MARCH 26 – U.S. cases surge to 82,404, overtaking both Italy and China to make America the world’s leader in reported Covid-19 infections. 

MARCH 27 Congress passes its third and largest aid bill, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The CARES Act provides $2 trillion to aid businesses and workers, procure medical supplies and equipment, and expand Unemployment Insurance. 

MARCH 28 – In signing the CARES Act, President Trump claims that the Inspector General charged with oversight of the bill requires his permission before reporting to Congress. 

MARCH 30 – Nine more states implement stay-at-home orders.

MARCH 31 – President Trump concedes that Covid-19 “is not the flu. It’s vicious. When you send a friend to the hospital… And you call up the next day, ‘how’s he doing?’ And he’s in a coma? This is not the flu.” 

MARCH 31 – U.S. Covid-19 death toll surpasses 5,000.

APRIL 3 – President Trump tells the public that Covid-19 is retreating. “I said it was going away – and it is going away.” 

APRIL 3 – New York City Covid-19 deaths surpass the number of Americans killed on 9/11. 

APRIL 3 – The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports that 24% of small businesses have closed due to the coronavirus lockdown and predicts another 40% could close soon. 

APRIL 3 – In response to the CDC’s recommendation that Americans wear facial masks, President Trump declines to lead by example, saying, “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.”

APRIL 4 – U.S. Covid-19 death toll passes 10,000. 

APRIL 6 – Twelve more states issue stay-at-home orders, bringing the total number to 42.

APRIL 6 – The United States overtakes Spain’s Covid-19 death toll with 13,298 fatalities, the second-highest in the world behind Italy.

APRIL 7 – President Trump ousts Glenn Fine, the DOD Inspector General picked to oversee the implementation of the CARES Act.

APRIL 9 – The United States overtakes Italy’s Covid-19 death toll with 19,802 fatalities, becoming the world leader in Covid-19 mortality. 

APRIL 14 – President Trump halts America’s contribution to WHO funding and calls for an investigation into the agency’s role in ”severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.”

APRIL 14 – U.S. Covid-19 death toll passes 30,000. 

APRIL 17 – In a series of tweets, President Trump encourages protests against Democratic governors’ social distancing restrictions: “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA.”

APRIL 17 – The BLS reports that national unemployment grew 0.9% in March, to 7.4 million unemployed or 4.4%. 

APRIL 19U.S. Covid-19 death toll passes 40,000. 

APRIL 21 – Tests from autopsies performed in early February come back positive for coronavirus, revealing Covid-19 deaths before the CDC reported the first U.S. fatality on March 1.

APRIL 21 – The White House removes Rick Bright, Director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). Bright had said the president’s claims for the curative powers of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine “clearly lack scientific merit.” 

APRIL 23 – In a fourth relief bill, Congress approves $484 billion in additional funding for small businesses, hospitals, and coronavirus testing.

APRIL 23 – President Trump is widely ridiculed for musing in a task force briefing that Covid-19 might be treatable with disinfectants and sunlight. “I see the disinfectant, where it knocks [the virus] out in a minute… is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning?”

APRIL 24 – Georgia becomes the first state to start lifting restrictions and reopening some businesses.

APRIL 28 – U.S. Covid-19 death toll surpasses the official tally (58,300) of Americans who died in the 1955-1975 Vietnam War

APRIL 29 – The Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that the U.S. economy shrank at an annual rate of 4.8% in the first quarter of 2020.

MAY 1 – President Trump announces his intention to replace Christi Grimm, the Inspector General of HHS, who released a late April report documenting shortages of medical supplies and testing delays. 

MAY 4 – Media reports say that almost 20 states have begun to lift social distancing restrictions. 

MAY 5 – Trump announces he’ll wind down the coronavirus task force by the end of May so that the White House can focus on restarting the economy.

MAY 5 – U.S. Covid-19 death toll passes 70,000. 

MAY 6 – President Trump again expresses impatience about opening the economy. “We can’t have our whole country out. We can’t do it. The country won’t take it. It won’t stand it. It’s not sustainable.”

MAY 10 – Two White House employees test positive for Covid-19.

MAY 11 – The BLS reports that the unemployment rate in April has ballooned to 14.7% with 20.5 million unemployed, much higher than at the peak of the 2008 Great Recession. 

MAY 11 – President Trump castigates Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf for “moving slowly” to reopen his state as protestors rally

MAY 18 – President Trump admits he has been taking daily doses of hydroxychloroquine, which has yet to be proven effective and may even be harmful to those who contract coronavirus.

MAY 21 – President Trump, after conducting a Michigan factory tour without a face mask, explains, “I wore one in this back area, but I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.”

MAY 26 – U.S. Covid-19 death toll passes 100,000.

MAY 26 – 36 states have reopened or are in the process of reopening.

MAY 28 – The total number of new jobless claims surpasses 40 million.

JUNE 2Trump suggests GOP move convention to Jacksonville, FL after N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper refuses to allow packed arenas.

JUNE 3 – According to a new study from the University of Minnesota, the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine does not prevent people from contracting Covid-19.

JUNE 6 – 35.4 million Americans are receiving unemployment benefits.

JUNE 8 – Following an easing of lockdown conditions in many parts of the country, infections are rising in 21 states.

JUNE 11 – U.S. Covid-19 cases surpass two million.

JUNE 11 News outlets report that more than 20 European countries have reopened their schools. Most U.S. schools remain closed.

JUNE 16In an op-ed, Vice President Mike Pence dismisses reports about a “second wave” of coronavirus infections and boasts that the Trump administration is “winning the fight against the invisible enemy.”

JUNE 17Vice President Pence tells governors that an apparent rise in U.S. coronavirus outbreaks stems from an increase in testing.

JUNE 19 – Gov. Andrew Cuomo wraps up 111 consecutive days of widely praised #coronavirus briefings as #COVID19 hospitalizations in New York have dropped below 1,000 for the first time since March 18.

JUNE 19Nine Texas mayors wrote a letter to the states’ residents this week, urging them to wear masks. Coronavirus cases in Texas continue to surge and the number of hospitalizations has been climbing since May.

JUNE 20Disregarding warnings from administration health officials against large public gatherings, Pres. Trump resumes mass campaign rallies in Tulsa, with 6,200 people in attendance.

JUNE 22Two members of President Trump’s campaign advance team, who attended Trump’s rally in Oklahoma, test positive for coronavirus. 

JUNE 22 – New data confirms that #COVID19 cases are growing in 29 states.

JUNE 23President Trump again insists that more tests are to blame for the increase in #coronavirus tests.

JUNE 23At a Congressional hearing, Dr. Fauci says U.S. health officials see a “disturbing surge” of infections in some parts of the country, as Americans ignore social distancing guidelines. 

JUNE 23Texas tallied more than 5,000 new cases in a single day for the first time. “The #coronavirus is serious. It’s spreading,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told a local television station, as he urged people to stay inside and wear face masks.

JUNE 23President Trump addresses a crowd of student supporters at a tightly packed megachurch in Phoenix. Trump appeared without a mask, breaking a Phoenix rule that came into force less than 72 hours earlier.

JUNE 26VP Pence’s task force hails states for “safely and responsibly” reopening their economies. Yet Texas and Florida officials reimposed restrictions on bars and restaurants amid record levels of new cases and tightening hospital capacity.

JUNE 30 – The E.U. bloc will allow visitors from 15 countries, but the U.S., Brazil and Russia were among the notable absences from the safe list.

JUNE 30 – New York Times data confirms 40,041 U.S. #COVID19 cases.

JULY 2 – Daily number of new #COVID19 cases in the U.S. tops 50,000 for the first time, the largest single-day total since the start of the pandemic.

JULY 2 The unemployment rate declined by 2.2 percentage points to 11.1 percent, and the number of unemployed persons fell by 3.2 million to 17.8 million.

JULY 5President Trump dismissed the impact of #COVID19 and said that while the testing of tens of millions of Americans had identified many cases, “99 percent” of them were “totally harmless.”

JULY 7Pres. Trump insists U.S. colleges and universities should remain open for the Fall semester, citing several European school openings, “We’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools, to get them open.” 

JULY 8 – The U.S. has reported more than 3 million coronavirus cases, with all but a handful of states struggling to control outbreaks of #COVID19.

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