Gottlieb says health officials ‘failed’ White House in early COVID response

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Washington — As President Trump faces criticism for acknowledging to journalist Bob Woodward he deliberately downplayed the threat of the coronavirus in the early weeks of the pandemic, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former head of the Food and Drug Administration, said Sunday he believes federal health officials “failed” White House leadership in the early days of the outbreak by neglecting to identify where it was spreading.

“The White House leadership was failed by health officials,” Gottlieb said on “Face the Nation.” “We did not have a diagnostic in the field, so we couldn’t screen for it. We should have. We should have started working on that in January. And we over-relied on a surveillance system that was built for flu and not for coronavirus without recognizing that it wasn’t going to be as sensitive at detecting coronavirus spread as it was for flu because the two viruses spread very differently. Those were two critical failings.”

Gottlieb acknowledged that while one could place the onus on Mr. Trump for appointing the nation’s top health officials, “ultimately the White House did not have the information they need to make decisions.”

“The key function of agencies and the government is to provide policymakers with accurate, actionable information. The White House didn’t have it,” he said, adding that he had conversations with the White House in the early months of 2020 to discuss the spread of the coronavirus, but was told the administration’s health officials repeatedly said they were confident the virus was not spreading across the country.

“I think when history looks back, that’s going to be a key moment,” Gottlieb said. “That’s what was going on over February.”

Mr. Trump has come under fierce criticism for his remarks on the coronavirus pandemic after audio clips of recorded interviews with Woodward for his new book, “Rage,” were published by news outlets last week. In one interview with Woodward on February 7, Mr. Trump admits the coronavirus is “more deadly” than “even your strenuous flu.” In another interview March 19, the president said “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.” Woodward’s book is published by Simon & Schuster, a division of ViacomCBS.

While Gottlieb said public messaging from the White House “wasn’t clear and consistent” at the outset, the “biggest failing” in the month of February was that the U.S. was “situationally blind.”

We had no idea where this virus was and wasn’t spreading, and so when it came time to have to shut down cities, rather than focus on the cities that were truly epidemic, like New York City, we went for a simultaneous shutdown order across the whole country when that was unnecessary now, in retrospect, because there were a lot of cities where the virus wasn’t spreading at that time and we could have focused on mitigation,” he said.

Gottlieb said officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were telling the White House coronavirus task force that the virus was not spreading in the U.S. in February. In March, however, many governors began issuing stay-at-home orders and mandating businesses close once it was clear the coronavirus was rapidly spreading.

“They said that they’re seeing no spike in people presenting with respiratory symptoms, therefore, coronavirus must not be spreading. And they were adamant about that,” he said. “I was talking to White House officials over this time period. They were adamant about that.”

Gottlieb said he suspects Mr. Trump was also being told the coronavirus wasn’t spreading in the U.S.

“That may have impacted what he did and didn’t say and his willingness to, you know, as he said, talk it down a little bit because he was of the perception that this was not spreading here in the United States,” he said. “That really was the tragic mistake, not just that we didn’t have the information, but we were so confident in drawing conclusions off of what proved to be faulty information and incomplete information.”

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