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Why U.S. national security community hasn’t prioritized public health — until now

Should the U.S. have been better prepared for the coronavirus pandemic? Experts both inside and outside of the government have sounded the alarm for years about the possibility of a dire public health crisis. One of them was Dr. Kenneth Bernard, an epidemiologist and former special assistant on biosecurity. He joins Nick Schifrin to discuss a lack of "advance planning" and what should happen next.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A question asked since the start of the pandemic is, should the U.S. have been better prepared?

    Nick Schifrin has a look at that now, with someone who, for decades, occupied a front-row seat in government efforts.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For years, experts inside and outside government have sounded the alarm bell that the U.S. needed to better prepare for a pandemic.

    One of those experts is Dr. Kenneth Bernard, an epidemiologist, a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service, and was the lead for public health issues on the National Security Council staffs during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

    Dr. Bernard, thank you very much. Welcome to the "NewsHour."

    Is the administration today taking the right steps?

  • Kenneth Bernard:

    Yes, I think so, much delayed, but in fact, they're doing the right thing.

    They're listening. They're putting together a plan that will protect us into the future, may help control the amount of disease we see in the United States. And the president's plan to move forward, I think, is the right one.

    Now, there have been a few missteps along the line, but I want to really emphasize that, despite mistakes that have been made before this time, this is a battle, this is a war against a biologic enemy. And we all need to pull together as a country and fight this war, independent of our opinions about what happened in the past or what our political opinions of the current administration or other administrations happen to be.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And it is a battle that we must win, and we must win altogether.

    For a minute, though, I do want to ask you about those delays — or much delayed, as I think you put it. You have criticized the administration's initial responses. Many others have criticized the administration's initial responses.

    What was inadequate about the initial response?

  • Kenneth Bernard:

    Advanced planning.

    Many of the things that we're doing right now, increasing our personal protective equipment, increasing the number of ventilators, planning for hospital surge capacity, all could have been done in advance, because we have known an epidemic is coming.

    We have had a series of epidemics, back from SARS and Ebola and pandemic flu. And there's many epidemics in the history of mankind, even in the recent 15 or 20 years, that have indicated that this is a real risk, an ongoing risk to humanity.

    And we need to plan for these. And we need to plan for them in advance, and that is the biggest — the biggest misstep I have seen is the late plans that were implemented over the last few weeks that could have been implemented a month or a month-and-a-half ago.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What is supposed to be the hub for planning in the administration, of course, is the National Security Council staff.

    In 2018, the then National Security Adviser John Bolton eliminated the Office of Global Health Security on the National Security Council staff. That was not the first time, though, that that had happened.

    You were in that job in early 2001. The Bush administration eliminated it. Job brought back. The Obama administration then eliminated it as well.

    So, this is actually a bipartisan blind spot?

  • Kenneth Bernard:

    It is. The Bush administration, when they came in, abolished the office altogether, until, of course, 9/11 and the anthrax attacks.

    Suddenly, they recreated an office with five people. I was put ahead of that office, and that office stayed in place doing some really good work for the — until the next administration started.

    The next administration started. There were no more big epidemics in the offing. From what they could tell, this wasn't an important issue for the national security environment, abolished the office again.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You just said not an important issue for the national security environment. It's an extraordinary statement, when we think about what is happening today.

    But, as you say, it's not about politics. Is it more about how the national security community doesn't coordinate with each other and perhaps doesn't take health seriously?

  • Kenneth Bernard:

    Yes, it's been the problem from the very start.

    The problem is a tribal one. The national security folks, Defense Department, State Department, intelligence agencies, they deal with hardball politics and hardball foreign policy. They don't really see health as — in the past have not seen health, except as support for their own people.

    The fact that health actually has national security implications has been a hard sell for 20 years. And that's the reason why they kept abolishing the offices.

    You wouldn't have abolished the Office of Russian affairs at the NSC because somebody wasn't interested in Russian affairs. But they abolished the Office of Biodefense and Health Affairs because each new foreign policy lead that would come in to the White House would say, ah, it's a health issue. Send it off to Health and Human Services.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's fast-forward back to today's crisis.

    A lot of State Department officials tell me that they blame China, they blame China for covering this up, and, if China had acted better, then we would be more ahead of the problem. Do you agree?

  • Kenneth Bernard:

    It's possible, but essentially completely irrelevant.

    Did the president's early decision to block those from China, especially from Wuhan, entering the United States — absolutely. We were given a month of extra time to prepare for what would be inevitable in this country, given the virus.

    And, instead, we spent most of our time worried about blocking borders, and not enough time preparing for the inevitable.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, Dr. Bernard, we started this conversation with the idea that we all need to come together and we all need to win this battle.

    What does a good response look like from here on out? And how can we all be part of that?

  • Kenneth Bernard:

    Well, first of all, we all are beginning to work together on this.

    I haven't seen this in a long time, and I have never seen an outbreak or an epidemic like this in my entire life. And I'm sure that's true for many people who are working on it.

    We all need to follow the directions of the administration on social distancing, on — in my case, I'm in California, and in New York — we're sheltering at home. We're just not going anywhere. We need to do that. We need to flatten the epidemic curve. We need to decrease the stress on our medical emergency systems, because they are going to be overwhelmed in the next two weeks.

    We also, as a government, need to aggressively pursue antiviral agents and other countermeasures. And I think any dollar that isn't spent on that that could be is a crime.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Dr. Kenneth Bernard, retired rear admiral and the former head of public health issues on both the Clinton and George W. Bush administration National Security Council staffs, thank you very much.

  • Kenneth Bernard:

    Thank you.

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