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U.S. federal response to coronavirus a ‘fiasco,’ says global health expert

As the novel coronavirus pandemic takes hold in the U.S., some Americans are expressing concerns over how the government is handling the situation, the availability of testing kits and the U.S. response in comparison to that of other countries. Dr. Ashish Jha of the Harvard Global Health Institute joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the “deeply disappointing” U.S. management of the outbreak.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, many Americans are talking about their concerns over how the government is responding to the pandemic, the ability to get testing, and how the U.S. response compares to other countries.

    Ashish Jha, who runs the Harvard Global Health Institute, watches all this. And he joins me now.

    Dr. Jha, first of all, how do you size up the way the U.S. has responded, compared to other countries, to this pandemic, this coronavirus crisis?

  • Ashish Jha:

    You know, Judy, the American response has been deeply disappointing.

    In almost every way, our response has been far less effective than every other major country in the world. It's baffling, actually. We have, in the CDC, arguably the best public health agency in the world. All of us thought that the CDC was going to — was prepared and was going to help fight this virus. The federal response has been a fiasco.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I want to, just for and you for our audience, play again something we aired a few minutes ago.

    And this was an exchange with Anthony Fauci, who is the — of course, who has been in charge of much of the treatment of infectious diseases in this country.

    He was in a hearing on Capitol Hill today, followed by something the president said today.

    Let's listen.

  • Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.:

    There's not one person that can ensure that these tests can be administered, yes or no?

  • Anthony Fauci:

    The system does not — is not really geared to what we need right now, what you are asking for. That is a failing.

  • Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz:

    A failing, yes.

  • Anthony Fauci:

    It is a failing. Let's admit it.

  • Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz:

    OK.

  • Anthony Fauci:

    The idea of anybody getting it easily, the way people in other countries are doing it, we're not set up for that.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We have them very heavily tested. If an American is coming back or anybody's coming back, we're testing. We have a tremendous testing setup where people coming in have to be tested.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ashish Jha, what do you make of this?

  • Ashish Jha:

    Well, of course, Dr. Tony Fauci is right. It has been a failing.

    And what your viewers need to understand is, if you get sick tomorrow with coronavirus, and you reach out to your doctor or you talk to your doctor, and your doctor wants to test you for coronavirus, he or she can't.

    Most doctors today cannot test people for coronavirus, because we just don't have the tests. Every other major country has figured out how to do it. South Korea is testing 15,000 people a day.

    Across the European Union, people are getting tests. Even Iran and Vietnam are testing more regularly than we are. We have just managed to bungle this so incredibly badly that most Americans cannot get the test they need. And, as Dr. Fauci said, it's a failing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Who has dropped the ball here?

  • Ashish Jha:

    You know, it's very hard to sort out. The World Health Organization put together a test kit; 60 countries accepted it. America decide to go its own way and not follow the WHO test kit.

    That's OK, because America has a strong track record of developing its own test. And then it's been one kind of debacle after another. My best sense is that the administration has not prioritized this. They have no sense of urgency over this.

    And when you look at what's happening across the country, with school closures, the NBA, and March Madness, all that being shut down, it's basically because we can't test anybody. We have lost the most powerful tool we have for fighting this disease. And so we're having to resort to a whole lot of other things.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What is it going to take to catch up?

  • Ashish Jha:

    Well, I still can't quite figure out why the testing — you know, last week, Vice President Pence said we're going to have a million tests available.

    I'm speaking to state health officials who tell me that they're rationing tests. They still can't get the tests out to doctors who need them. So there is some set of technical issues that really need prioritization.

    And for us to not get really walloped by this infection, we have to implement very kind of draconian, difficult measures, like shutting down public meetings, like sending kids home, like ensuring people are not going to the office or going out to restaurants or movies.

    We're going to have to do all of that until we really get a grip on the infection.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But are you concerned where we will get to a point where people will — who should be tested, who desperately need to be diagnosed one way or another, won't be, and this virus will go on for longer than it should, and people will die as a result of that?

  • Ashish Jha:

    I think there is reason to be concerned that's already happening now.

    If today, I, as a physician, wanted to test somebody that I was worried might have coronavirus, I can't, generally, largely. Most Americans can't get that test who need it.

    And, you know, the doubling time of this disease is six days. And another way of thinking about it is, my guess is, about 10,000 Americans probably have the infection today. Officially, it's only about 1,400, but my best guess is 5,000 to 10,000 Americans. That number is going to double in six days. It's going to double again in another six days.

    And until we get widespread testing available, we're not going to be able to wrap our arms around this. And I think all of us in the public health community are baffled that we, the most sort of innovative, ingenious country, with all this scientific capacity, have not been able to do this. It's really a failing of federal leadership.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just in a few seconds, the number of hospital beds available?

  • Ashish Jha:

    Yes, this is something that we have been looking at and are very worried.

    If the infection rates spike, we don't have enough hospital beds to take care of everybody. And so that's the reason for this social distancing of trying to spread the infection out, so that not everybody gets infected at once.

    I think, if we can do that, our hospitals, some of the best hospitals in the world, I think are going to be able to accommodate infected people. But we really have to make sure that we're not seeing spikes in infection, and that we're spreading the infection out over time, so the health care system can manage this.

    I'm optimistic, but it's not going to be easy. It's going to require a lot of work.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Ashish Jha of Harvard's Global Health school, we thank you very much.

  • Ashish Jha:

    Thank you so much for having me.

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