Transcript

The Virus: What Went Wrong?

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MARTIN SMITH, Correspondent:

Dec. 31.

One million people crowded into New York's Times Square to celebrate what they hoped would be a bright new year. What no one knew at the time was that a highly infectious virus was rapidly moving toward them.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Scientists say a new virus related to SARS may be responsible for a mysterious pneumonia outbreak in China.

MARTIN SMITH:

I had begun reporting on the coronavirus several months ago.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

The new coronavirus was found in 15 of 59 patients.

MARTIN SMITH:

I had just returned from the Middle East, where I was covering events in Iraq and Iran. Out of caution, I decided to quarantine in the Catskill Mountains, two hours north of New York City. I would do my reporting from here.

MALE NEWSREADER:

As it stands right now, the CDC believes that the risk to the American population is low, but we just don’t know how contagious this virus is.

MARTIN SMITH:

I wanted to understand where we were headed, were we prepared, were warnings being heeded?

Among my first calls was to Dr. David Ho—

Dr. Ho.

—a renowned American medical researcher who I met years back when I was reporting on the AIDS epidemic.

Good to see you. You don't look too worse for wear.

DAVID HO, M.D., Director, Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center:

[Laughs] I'm just putting up a good front.

MARTIN SMITH:

Dr. Ho had worked to stem the spread of SARS in 2003. Now he was worried about the spread of COVID-19.

Do you think people are grasping how serious this situation is?

DAVID HO:

I think people hear the news. They watch the coverage. But it's hard to fully comprehend. Certainly we did not realize that our government would be so ill-prepared. We knew long ago what China was experiencing. I think there was a false assumption that that's somebody else's problem, it would not happen to us. But that's the same kind of attitude that people had about many other epidemics in the past. We knew if this thing blew up it would just continue to spread.

Wuhan, China

MARTIN SMITH:

Wuhan—a major commercial hub in central China.

The first case was identified here on November 17. No one knew what it was. But just a few weeks later, it was clear something was wrong.

Amy Qin reported from China for The New York Times.

AMY QIN, The New York Times:

In December, there were starting to be these patients that were trickling into these hospitals in Wuhan with this pneumonia that doctors were really puzzled by. It was unclear how to treat them. They were giving them medicine and they weren't getting better, and they were still running these very high temperatures. And the rumor was that this is a virus that people need to be aware of.

MARTIN SMITH:

Throughout December, more and more people continued to come into Wuhan hospitals with high fevers and coughs.

Then, on Dec. 30, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, Dr. Li Wenliang, logged on to a group chat with some fellow medical school classmates. He was worried.

Have you seen the record of what was said? What he was saying?

LIU BAIFANG SCHELL:

Yes. It really wasn't that outrageous a statement he made, or anything, just simply said that I heard in our hospital there are cases of SARS-like symptoms.

MARTIN SMITH:

Liu Baifang Schell and her husband, Orville, are longtime China experts.

And that was enough to bring the authorities down on him.

LIU BAIFANG SCHELL:

Yes.

ORVILLE SCHELL, Asia Society:

The Public Security Bureau came and made him sign a confession and made him agree to be quiet. And that's a very threatening thing, because the Public Security Bureau is no joke. It's a secret police force, and people are fearful of it.

AMY QIN:

In China there's an entire system of online surveillance, in which they can monitor what's happening, and I think, in this case, they would've been able to use certain keywords to track what people were saying. And, actually, local authorities, the police have broad powers to look into the personal messages of its citizens.

MARTIN SMITH:

Local Wuhan authorities issued a formal directive ordering other doctors not to discuss the mysterious pneumonia.

TELEVISION NEWSREADERS:

[Speaking Mandarin] Recently, members of the Wuhan medical community have noticed patients being infected with pneumonia. Without seeking expert confirmation, some internet users shared this information, influencing society in a negative manner. Any fabricating, sharing and spreading rumors will be investigated by the police.

—will be investigated by the police.

—will be investigated by the police.

MARTIN SMITH:

Despite the silencing of dissent, Chinese scientists were working to map the genome of the virus.

DAVID HO:

COVID-19 was very quickly sequenced, and very quickly people discerned that it was about 80% related to the SARS coronavirus. But given the speed of the subsequent spread, it should have been apparent to all that there must have been human-to-human transmission.

MARTIN SMITH:

It surprises me to see that as of January 12, the World Health Organization issued a statement saying, "There is no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission."

DAVID HO:

They certainly said that, but they weren't on the ground. They were probably recounting what was reported back to them by the China CDC.

MARTIN SMITH:

Shouldn’t they have known?

DAVID HO:

Well, they should have been asking tough questions. This was obviously an epidemic that was being spread by humans.

MARTIN SMITH:

But with Lunar New Year around the corner, no one wanted to spoil the festivities.

LI GANG, Director, Wuhan CDC:

[Speaking Mandarin] At this point, the novel coronavirus is not very contagious.

MALE NEWSREADER:

[Speaking Mandarin] There's no evidence of human-to-human transmission.

WANG GUANGFA, Peking University:

[Speaking Mandarin] From what I have seen so far, the infection is largely under control.

AMY QIN:

Chinese New Year every year is a really festive time. This is the time when everyone gets together with their families and in their neighborhoods. And in one neighborhood in Wuhan called Baibuting, they had organized this large banquet, at which 40,000 families ended up attending.

DAVID HO:

If you have a big celebration, you don't want to have bad news. And the same holds for the Chinese New Year. If you bring up bad news during that time period it is said that you'll be cursed with bad happenings for the rest of the year.

MARTIN SMITH:

Making matters worse, millions of people left Wuhan in this period to visit friends and family across the country and beyond.

FEMALE TRAVELER:

[Speaking Mandarin] We’re not worried. We’re quite well prepared, we all have face masks.

MALE TRAVELER:

[Speaking Mandarin] We made it through SARS. So this is not a big deal.

MARTIN SMITH:

It was not until January 20 that the Chinese health ministry declared what was already obvious: The virus was spreading from human to human.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Some ominous developments out of China. Officials there have just confirmed the first human-to-human transmission of coronavirus. It’s a huge story—

ORVILLE SCHELL:

The WHO did not announce the prospect of human-to-human transmission almost two months after this thing began, and it was two weeks after Taiwan had warned them that there was human-to-human transmission.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Wuhan, China, ground zero for the outbreak, now under lockdown—

MARTIN SMITH:

By January 23, Wuhan was placed on lockdown.

MALE NEWSREADER:

All trains and planes out of that city, halted just tonight.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Eerie for a city 11 million people call home.

MARTIN SMITH:

It was then that people around the world began to take notice.

STEFANO FAGIUOLI:

I perfectly remember the moment in which we start fearing this issue, and it was when we have seen all those Caterpillar building a new hospital in just less than 10 days.

MARTIN SMITH:

Dr. Stefano Fagiuoli heads the department of medicine at a hospital in Bergamo, Italy.

STEFANO FAGIUOLI:

It's in a place far away from us, so it was all TV show.

But then I remember I was having a meeting with some colleagues and I said, "Look, but if they are building a whole hospital, there must be something beyond our perception." And I said, "I think we need to be prepared.”

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Two new coronavirus cases have been confirmed here in Singapore.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

[Speaking Italian] The first two cases in Italy—

MARTIN SMITH:

In fact, by early February cases began showing up in other countries, including the U.S.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

The deadly coronavirus officially hitting the U.S.

MALE NEWSREADER:

A ninth person has tested positive for coronavirus—

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

This is now the third case in Ontario, fourth case in Canada, and it really shows just how fluid this situation is—

MARTIN SMITH:

Meanwhile, Dr. Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who had warned of the deadly virus at the end of December, had been hospitalized, a little over a week after he was ordered to stay quiet.

By late January, he was on a ventilator, struggling to breathe.

By Feb. 7, he was dead.

AMY QIN:

His death was really a shock. And at that time that was the lowest point in China’s battle with the epidemic. And his death really put a human face on the cost of it.

MARTIN SMITH:

When news of Dr. Li’s death surfaced, Chinese social media exploded in outrage.

ZHONG NANSHAN:

He told people the truth at the end of December.

MARTIN SMITH:

It got the attention of Dr. Zhong Nanshan, an 83-year-old highly respected pulmonologist—a top adviser to the government.

ZHONG NANSHAN:

—and then he passed away.

MARTIN SMITH:

He now dared to defy the party.

ZHONG NANSHAN:

I think the majority of the people think he is the hero of China.

MARTIN SMITH:

That seemed unusual to me, to hear somebody that is an authority like that, to criticize the government.

AMY QIN:

Well, Dr. Zhong Nanshan, the reason why he has so much credibility with the public is because he's willing to push back against the government and criticize the government when it's necessary. I think he was speaking—just saying what most people in China feel.

ZHONG NANSHAN:

This is a Chinese doctor. I suppose the majority of Chinese doctors are actually like him. And in Wuhan and some other cities, they held a short mourning memory.

AMY QIN:

Everyone would go out onto their balconies and turn the lights off and hold their cell phones up. It was really incredible to see.

Florida, USA

MARTIN SMITH:

A month earlier, the Trumps greeted the new year in Florida. They hosted a big party at their Mar-a-Lago mansion.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Tonight, a new year and an impeachment trial looming.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Family members, honored guests and hundreds of members of President Trump’s private club.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Our country has never done better than it's doing right now. We have the best unemployment numbers, we have the best employment numbers. Almost 160 million people are working, and our country is really the talk of the world, everybody’s talking about it. Thank you very much.

MARTIN SMITH:

But that weekend the director of the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Robert Redfield, received a phone call from the American CDC office in China.

ROBERT REDFIELD, M.D., Director, CDC:

I was actually on a vacation with my children, their spouses and my 11 grandchildren up in Deep Creek, Maryland. I did get notified from our CDC China office on New Year's Eve that there was a cluster of cases of unspecified pneumonia in Wuhan, China, that seemed to be linked to a seafood market.

MARTIN SMITH:

The call was one of several that interrupted his vacation.

ROBERT REDFIELD:

If you talk to my wife, she said I spent most of the time on the phone.

MARTIN SMITH:

On January 3, Redfield called his Chinese counterpart, Dr. George Gao.

George F. Gao, M.D.

Director, China CDC

MICHAEL SHEAR, The New York Times:

It got to the point that Redfield's counterpart even breaks down crying during one of the conversations that he has with him—

MARTIN SMITH:

Michael Shear is a White House correspondent for The New York Times.

MICHAEL SHEAR:

—which underscores for Redfield the seriousness of what the Chinese believe at that point that they're dealing with.

2003

MICHAEL SHEAR:

The memory of those previous viral infections, SARS and another one called MERS, they really ravaged that part of the world. So I think what you can probably draw from it is a bit of the anxiety on the part of the doctor sitting there in China thinking to himself, "Jeez, what if this is as bad as SARS? What if it's worse?"

MARTIN SMITH:

Shear stands by his reporting, but Redfield told me that Gao was not very alarmed.

ROBERT REDFIELD:

He felt pretty confident that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. And that really was the extent of it.

MARTIN SMITH:

So he wasn't very concerned. If there was no human-to-human transmission confirmed, then he wasn't very concerned at that point?

ROBERT REDFIELD:

Back in Jan. 3 time frame, third through sixth time frame, there was not a sense of urgency from him.

MARTIN SMITH:

But Redfield was concerned and called his boss, Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human Services. He also notified the National Security Council at the White House.

The president had already begun receiving daily briefings from the U.S. intelligence community. Some contained warnings of a serious contagion, with dire economic and social consequences.

MICHAEL SHEAR:

They call it the PDB, the President's Daily Briefing, and the virus begins to pop up in those, just as sort of, "Hey, this could be something, and we should keep an eye on it."

MARTIN SMITH:

You say it's in his brief. We know that he doesn't always read his brief. So what do we know about when did the president know?

MICHAEL SHEAR:

That's a good question about whether or not he might have actually read it. He's never been clear any of the times that he's been asked, and I think our reporting suggests that, as you say, it's not clear at all that he reads the briefing.

MARTIN SMITH:

And the president now says he was distracted—

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

I mean, I got impeached. I think I certainly devoted a little time to thinking about it, right?

MARTIN SMITH:

—and busy securing a big trade deal with China.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

A rare moment of collaboration after more than two years of acrimonious talks—

MARTIN SMITH:

During this period Azar was trying to alert the president but couldn’t get a meeting.

Instead, over two weeks passed before he got a call back from Mar-a-Lago on a Saturday. And the president wanted to discuss something else.

STEPHEN MORRISON, Director, CSIS Global Health Policy Center:

The president was not reached by Secretary Azar until Jan. 18, and the president's first concern at that time was to talk about e-cigarettes.

MARTIN SMITH:

Stephen Morrison is a health policy expert who has long warned that America was unprepared for a pandemic like this one.

STEPHEN MORRISON:

—and Secretary Azar was having a hard time conveying the gravity of the situation to the president.

MARTIN SMITH:

This is 18 days after the Chinese government has recognized that they are seeing deaths from this, and it takes 18 days for Azar to get to the president.

STEPHEN MORRISON:

Correct.

MARTIN SMITH:

Was that the president's first true briefing on this?

STEPHEN MORRISON:

As far as I know, it was the first serious high-level discussion.

MARTIN SMITH:

But it is unclear how much Azar pressed the president. He declined to be interviewed.

According to Michael Shear, Azar actually reassured the president that he didn’t need to worry.

MICHAEL SHEAR:

What Azar wanted to communicate to the president was, "We got this. We're not taking this lightly. CDC is on it. FDA is on it. We're monitoring it closely." But also not like, "We all have to panic and shut the country down." At this point, it's really—everybody is in the mode of “we've got to keep an eye on this.”

January 22, 2020

MALE REPORTER:

Are there worries about a pandemic at this point?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

No, we're not at all, and we have it under control. It's going to be just fine.

MARTIN SMITH:

As late as Jan. 26, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease official, downplayed the dangers.

ANTHONY FAUCI:

The American people should not be worried or frightened by this. It's a very, very low risk to the United States because we have ways of preparing, of screening of people coming in. But it’s something that we, as public health officials, need to take very seriously.

London, UK

MARTIN SMITH:

A prominent biostatistician, Nicholas Jewell, had been tracking the virus for over a month.

NICHOLAS JEWELL, Ph.D., London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine:

There was still a remarkable lack of urgency in the Western world, that this was actually almost inevitably going to reach their shores, and that it was going to be potentially catastrophic unless we took major steps. So there’s no question in my mind that we lost the time that we had gained from the early warning coming out of China.

MARTIN SMITH:

On Jan. 29, White House Economic Adviser Peter Navarro sent the president a lengthy memo warning that there was a risk of massive loss of life. He urged flights from China to be halted.

The next day, Secretary Azar had a second call with the president. This time he was more concerned. He warned the president that the coronavirus might become a serious pandemic.

MALE NEWSREADER:

The virus has been spread rapidly over the last month—

MARTIN SMITH:

The president responded by restricting some flights from China, but not all. And millions of people had already left Wuhan anyway.

And many of those people were flying out to the rest of the world.

DAVID HO:

Yes. In fact, there are direct flights from Wuhan to many cities in the U.S. And that was happening throughout the month of January, until the lockdown.

MARTIN SMITH:

So those are extremely important weeks?

DAVID HO:

Yes.

MARTIN SMITH:

In fact, in the month before President Trump’s decision to restrict flights, an estimated 380,000 people entered the U.S. from China.

Even afterwards, if you were an American, you were exempted, and flights from Europe were not restricted for another six weeks.

Furthermore, asymptomatic carriers were not detected.

MICHAEL SHEAR:

One of the things that they didn't know at the time was even if a person isn't symptomatic, doesn't have a fever, maybe that person is still spreading the virus all over the place because they have it and they're just not showing symptoms yet.

MARTIN SMITH:

The virus could just spread undetected. Restricting flights proved to be a half measure.

DAVID HO:

Those of us who study viruses knew that we were going to be hit in waves. Here in the U.S. we have lost six weeks sitting on the sideline watching China struggle, and watching other countries struggle, thinking that if we shut our borders we'll be fine.

MARTIN SMITH:

Jeremy Konyndyk, a specialist in global health issues, remembers meeting with some Trump administration officials around this time.

In February, you sat down with some administration officials, correct?

JEREMY KONYNDYK, Center for Global Development:

It was an off-the-record dinner, so I can't say too much specifically about it, but it was very clear that most of the bandwidth of the administration was focused on enforcing the travel restrictions on China, tracking people who had come back from there, quarantining people. That was the ball that they had their eye on at that time.

MARTIN SMITH:

What's wrong with that?

JEREMY KONYNDYK:

Well, I was quite gobsmacked by that, because to my mind, the biggest priority at that point was not preventing it from coming here, because it was inevitable that it would come here. It's fine to try and keep it out, but you have to do so with the expectation that, at best, you are buying time.

MARTIN SMITH:

The problem was that the administration was failing to understand the basic math behind a pandemic.

NICHOLAS JEWELL:

If I tell you there's 30 cases in the United States, that's not going to scare you. That's not going to cause you to shut down your cities. If I tell you there's 60 cases in the United States, you still feel very comfortable. A hundred and twenty, 240, and so on, you don't feel the power of exponential growth until it's absolutely stunning. So when you say, "Oh, if there are 10,000 cases in the United States, then we ought to pay attention." The trouble is, in two or three days, now it's 20,000. Within another two or three days, it's 16 times. It takes a long time to ramp up exponential growth, but once it gets your attention, it's stunning in its speed.

New York, USA

MARTIN SMITH:

In New York City, an infectious disease specialist with New York-Presbyterian Hospital started to see cases he suspected of being COVID-19 by mid-February.

DANIEL GRIFFIN, M.D., New York-Presbyterian Hospital:

We started to hear that there were a lot of viral illnesses that we were not able to identify. I started hearing conversations, suggestions from a lot of the community doctors in our area, that maybe we were seeing early spread here.

MARTIN SMITH:

During this time the president is saying everything's under control. People that want to get a test can get a test, that this is going to disappear when the weather warms up. How did you take that in at the time?

DANIEL GRIFFIN:

It was tough, because as clinicians, when you get the sense something is going on, you're waiting for the ability to confirm that. But most of the response was, "You know what? Until we see a large number of cases, we don't want to overrespond. We don't want to be the boy who cried wolf."

MARTIN SMITH:

In fact, there were people who thought you were a little bit out there. They said, "What's wrong with Dr. Griffin?"

DANIEL GRIFFIN:

Well, [Laughs] that was actually—when I reached out to one of the other infectious disease physicians in the area, and I said, "Hey, we really should start communicating and preparing." And, yeah, his response to one of my partners was, "What's wrong with Dr. Griffin? Why is he getting so worked up about this?"

MARTIN SMITH:

Dr. Griffin was not alone. Many doctors and scientists were increasingly concerned that America was not prepared.

Seoul, South Korea

MARTIN SMITH:

Among the first countries outside China to face the coronavirus was South Korea. Their response is now a case study in how to handle an outbreak.

Seoul, 2015

MARTIN SMITH:

Back in 2015, the Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, had scared them.

I spoke to South Korea’s foreign minister, Kang Kyung-Wha.

KANG KYUNG-WHA, Foreign Minister:

The lessons from the MERS experience was instrumental. I think that failure had the seeds for the success this time.

MARTIN SMITH:

Officials called an emergency meeting. With just four known cases of COVID-19 in the whole country, health care officials summoned 20 private companies on Jan. 27 to a conference room inside Seoul’s central train station.

KANG KYUNG-WHA:

The train station in Seoul is not just a train station. It's a multifunction complex, and so if you want to bring in experts from all across the country and have a quick meeting, this would be the ideal place.

LEE HYUKMIN:

The meeting at Seoul station was prepared and carried out by the Korean CDC.

MARTIN SMITH:

Dr. Lee Hyukmin was at the meeting and headed the initiative.

LEE HYUKMIN:

The purpose of the meeting was to encourage the development of commercialized diagnostic kits for COVID-19. The meeting was somewhat tense.

MARTIN SMITH:

The meeting was tense?

LEE HYUKMIN:

Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN SMITH:

It was tense because no one knew how contagious the virus was and how much time they had.

LEE HYUKMIN:

In our estimation, the chance of the importation of COVID-19 in Korea is very high, we thought. So when the first patient was confirmed in Korea, my first action is to make the diagnostic testing method to detect the COVID-19.

MARTIN SMITH:

Based on their experience with MERS, the number of infected people could be doubling every few days. In a matter of weeks, South Korea could be looking at over 100,000 cases.

Moving fast, three days after the train station meeting four companies had developed COVID tests. Five days after that, one was approved for use. By Feb. 7, 46 labs across the country began testing people. A process that ordinarily could take a year had been completed in just over a week.

There were only four cases when they had their meeting and call to action.

JEREMY KONYNDYK:

That's right. They recognized how dangerous this was, and even if all you have are four cases, that is a dangerous moment.

MARTIN SMITH:

They tested around 10,000 people daily.

JEREMY KONYNDYK:

They then swung into action very decisively and set up this enormous testing regime along with very robust tools for monitoring cases and tracing contacts and isolating and quarantining people based on that. They began acting before it seemed like they needed to do so.

MARTIN SMITH:

Former head of USAID, Dr. Rajiv Shah, was astounded by what South Korea was able to do.

RAJIV SHAH, M.D., Administrator, USAID, 2010-15:

They had just deployed an army of community health personnel who were spraying Purell on people going in and out of the subway, who were wiping down public spaces and contact points, who were making drive-through testing available very broadly by doing swab collections and mailing it in to a public health laboratory construct and reference labs that can validate the data quickly.

MARTIN SMITH:

They thought everything was under control.

MALE NEWSREADER:

South Korea appears to be flattening the curve.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

South Korea has done better than most of the other countries around the world.

MARTIN SMITH:

They had found only 30 cases.

MALE NEWSREADER:

—reporting the lowest number of new cases—

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

—a leader in the global fight against the new coronavirus.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Something they’re doing is working.

Daegu, South Korea

MARTIN SMITH:

Then, on Feb. 18, they identified a 61-year-old woman in Daegu, South Korea. At the time they had discovered no other cases in Daegu, but when they traced her contacts, it led them here: the Shincheonji Church, a Christian sect that claims over 200,000 members who believe that their leader, this man, is the Messiah. Officials knew they had a big problem.

KANG KYUNG-WHA:

It became obvious that this was a cluster that was at risk, and then we decided to trace the group as a whole, and this is about 9,000, 10,000 people.

MARTIN SMITH:

So you tested 9,000 members of the church?

KANG KYUNG-WHA:

Not all of them, but we contacted them to the extent that they were traceable, asked if they had any symptoms. The percentage of positives among them were much higher than any other groups.

MARTIN SMITH:

Health officials found that thousands of church members were positive. And they were quarantined.

Dozens would die.

Today South Korea, along with Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam, has managed to control the spread of the virus better than most countries. In Seoul, a crowded city of 10 million people, there have been just four known deaths.

In the country of South Korea, how many deaths, approximately?

KANG KYUNG-WHA:

It would be 260, 264.

MARTIN SMITH:

The number has now crept up to around 300.

Washington, D.C., USA

MARTIN SMITH:

In mid-January, the CDC was busy developing its own diagnostic test.

ALEX AZAR:

Good morning, everyone.

MARTIN SMITH:

On Jan. 28, Secretary Azar announced they were ready to go.

ALEX AZAR:

This is really a historic accomplishment. Within one week—within one week—the CDC had invented a rapid diagnostic test. Within weeks—

SCOTT BECKER:

Right out of the gate, I was feeling really good about the process.

MARTIN SMITH:

Scott Becker is the CEO of the Association of Public Health Labs.

SCOTT BECKER:

We were going to be able to cover the country to a good extent for the surveillance and early detection that was really Job One.

MARTIN SMITH:

But that optimism evaporated by the end of the first week in February.

SCOTT BECKER:

It was Sunday morning, Feb. 8. I woke up a little bit late. I read my texts and my emails, and I start seeing these messages.

"We're having a problem." "Is anyone else seeing this?"

I call that an OSM—it was my "oh, s--- moment." And I remember thinking, "Oh, my God, wait until governors and others find out about this." We're all counting on getting testing up and running, and what a nightmare this is going to be.

CDC Headquarters

SCOTT BECKER:

So, it was pretty devastating to everyone—the CDC staff, to public health labs, to epidemiologists, the public health community. We were left without the biggest tool in our toolbox at that point.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Government officials discovered contamination in a CDC lab in Atlanta where the first batch of test kits were developed—

MARTIN SMITH:

By then, a diagnostic test developed by German scientists was available from the WHO, but U.S. officials would insist it was better to find an American solution.

DEBORAH BIRX:

Any of these groups can submit their testing kits through our regulatory processes, but without that, and without a plan, we are not going to accept tests that have not been studied by us.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Good answer. It's a good answer.

MARTIN SMITH:

Is that excusable, that they failed to have a test ready to go?

DAVID HO:

That's inexcusable in my book. I mean, how can you distribute something that is so critical to monitor the epidemic and then have it be faulty? We cannot distribute drugs like that, we cannot distribute other FDA-approved tests in that fashion. So that's certainly inexcusable, and it set us back for a good month, I would say.

MARTIN SMITH:

Is it unusual to have a glitch in the initial tests?

TOM FRIEDEN:

I have not seen another mistake like this at CDC. The tests have rolled out very effectively without a glitch in the past.

MARTIN SMITH:

Tom Frieden was head of the CDC during the Obama administration.

Is there any bigger misstep or stumble here than the failure to test?

TOM FRIEDEN:

I think when we look back at what went right and what went wrong, we're going to focus on February—what should have gotten done in February that didn't happen.

REP. TED LIEU, D-Calif.:

So my first question to you is, does the CDC's test for coronavirus work?

ROBERT REDFIELD:

Yeah, the problem was when the test was sent to the states, one of the components had a contaminant in it. That’s what had to be corrected.

MARTIN SMITH:

I asked Dr. Redfield why South Korea succeeded where the U.S. failed.

ROBERT REDFIELD:

Korea had already developed private-public partnerships through the MERS thing and really had invested enormously appropriately, and that’s what our nation had not done over the last 30 years. So you won't get an argument from me that the public health workforce has been really underinvested in for decades.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

The CDC says it's now going to send improved tests to the labs facing problems.

MARTIN SMITH:

Nearly three weeks were lost while the CDC tried to remanufacture the tests.

Qom, Iran

MARTIN SMITH:

If the failure at the CDC and the outbreaks in China and South Korea did not instill more urgency, the February outbreak in Iran should have.

This is Qom, a place of pilgrimage for Shiite muslims from all over the world, including China. It was here that the world’s next major outbreak of the virus erupted.

From the beginning, Iran’s leaders, like America’s, played down the dangers. A mixture of religion and national pride had delayed Iran’s response. Iran would soon be reporting the world’s highest mortality rate.

JAVAD ZARIF, Foreign Minister, Iran:

We never thought Iran would be one of the first countries hit by the pandemic. For whatever reason, because of our contacts or because of other reasons, we were one of the first countries hit.

MARTIN SMITH:

I was able to reach Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, in Tehran. It was 6 o'clock in the morning, my time.

Why do you think you were so hard hit? What are the theories now?

JAVAD ZARIF:

Well, nobody knows. It was at a time when, more than anything, the population was unprepared.

MARTIN SMITH:

In fact, it was natural that Iran would be hit with a virus from China.

It is not only that Chinese pilgrims come here. Iran faces tough U.S. economic sanctions, and as a result China has become Iran’s lifeline to the outside world.

Kamiar Alaei is an Iranian health care expert living in exile in the U.S.

KAMIAR ALAEI:

There are a lot of Chinese investors in Iran. So they have sent some of their employees to work in Iran. So that's what led to Chinese New Year, they went back to China, got infected, goes back to Iran.

We asked the government to cancel the direct flights from China to Iran. But due to political interests, the Iranian government, they decided not to do that.

MARTIN SMITH:

The flights were on Iran’s largest carrier, Mahan Air. But Zarif told me that Iran canceled its flights from China at the same time as America did.

JAVAD ZARIF:

I think we were one of the first to limit flights and to screen passengers.

MARTIN SMITH:

The Americans cut flights from China at the end of January.

JAVAD ZARIF:

My information is that our decision was made basically in the same time zone as the others.

MARTIN SMITH:

Yet one analysis of flight records shows that Mahan Air flew over 55 round-trip flights to and from China between Feb. 5 and Feb. 23. They flew on to Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and other countries.

All the while, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, would continue to downplay the virus. At one point he said it was possibly a biological attack.

AYATOLLAH KHAMENEI:

[Speaking Persian] You Americans are suspected of having produced this virus. It is said that part of the virus is specifically built for Iran, using the genetic data of Iranians.

MARTIN SMITH:

Do you agree with the supreme leader that the coronavirus was perhaps a biological attack by the United States upon Iran?

JAVAD ZARIF:

Well, there are a lot of speculations on all sides about this. I said it's not unreasonable to believe that.

MARTIN SMITH:

Talk of a biological attack was a distraction. Tehran’s hospitals were overwhelmed. On social media, people were seen collapsing in the streets.

MALE VIDEOGRAPHER:

Rasoul Akram Hospital right now. This hospital has hit maximum capacity and no one can admit him. Poor fellow has fallen on the ground and there is no one to help him.

MARTIN SMITH:

The government also delayed the closing of Parliament. At least 23 senior government figures caught the coronavirus; reportedly, around a dozen senior officials died.

Iraj Harirchi, the deputy health minister, appeared at this press conference clearly ill, while denying he had the coronavirus.

KAMIAR ALEI:

He said, "No. This is just common cold. It's not a serious thing."

MARTIN SMITH:

The next day, however, he tested positive and was hospitalized.

Many of Iran’s faithful continued to deny the seriousness of the situation.

MALE WORSHIPPER:

There are people who say that this shrine spreads the coronavirus. I’m here to lick the tomb so that I can get sick. That way, I’ve removed the viruses. You can come and visit.

MARTIN SMITH:

It wasn’t until March 16 that the government closed Qom’s shrines.

CLERIC:

We're here to say that Tehran is damn wrong do that!

JAVAD ZARIF:

It took some time for us to close the shrines. We have a very traditional society with people who still do not agree with us.

MARTIN SMITH:

By then, government officials had began enforcing social distancing and stay-at-home orders. But it was too late. Today, Iran has reported over 180,000 cases and 9,000 deaths.

West Africa, 2014

MARTIN SMITH:

Coronavirus should have been no surprise. The world has seen an increasing number of viral outbreaks in recent years.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

—health official tells us that there may already be hundreds more fatalities than have been reported.

MARTIN SMITH:

In 2014, the deadly Ebola epidemic was a big wake-up call.

MALE NEWSREADER:

This is an epidemic of dysfunctional health systems.

MARTIN SMITH:

Jeremy Konyndyk led the U.S. government’s effort to fight it.

JEREMY KONYNDYK:

It was a monumental effort to bring that outbreak under control. I think all of us who were involved in that effort looked back at that and said, "Wow, a truly airborne or droplet-style respiratory pandemic is going to be so much worse and so much more difficult." And so there was a real urgency in the final years of the Obama administration to begin laying more groundwork for that kind of a scenario.

MARTIN SMITH:

To address potential threats like this, the Obama White House organized a pandemic response team inside the National Security Council, the NSC.

December 2014

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

—have to put in place an infrastructure, so that if and when a new strain of flu like the Spanish flu crops up five years from now or a decade from now, we’ve made the investment.

MARTIN SMITH:

But in 2018, after Trump tapped John Bolton to head the NSC, the pandemic response team was reorganized. Its members were reassigned. Its leader, Adm. Timothy Ziemer, left.

Bolton has maintained that he was simply streamlining bloated NSC operations and that it did not hurt America’s pandemic response.

But last year, Stephen Morrison headed a bipartisan effort to address America’s pandemic response capacity. His report, released in November 2019, recommended the pandemic response team be moved back to the White House.

STEPHEN MORRISON:

We live in an era in which we're seeing increasing rapidity, and increasing velocity, and increasing impacts of these new pathogens coming at us. This is the condition of our microbial universe today.

MALE NEWSREADER:

—a SARS-like virus has now spread into Japan.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

—more than 10,000 people died from H1N1—

STEPHEN MORRISON:

The idea that you would disband your capacity willfully at the White House, aware of the developments of the last two decades, which were convincingly that we needed to be prepared, and far better prepared, on a consistent and sustained and coherent basis.

MARTIN SMITH:

What's the explanation that would be given?

STEPHEN MORRISON:

Well, I can't speak for John Bolton. I presume that they wanted to see that responsibility moved over, out of the White House, to the secretary of HHS and to those who worked underneath him.

MARTIN SMITH:

So what's wrong with that decision to move this capacity over to the HHS?

STEPHEN MORRISON:

The mistake there is to assume that the secretary of HHS is able to see the full picture and be able to command the different elements of our government to respond in a coordinated and coherent and integrated way. That can only happen through an empowered entity at the White House.

So by definition, we set ourselves up for a slow and sluggish response. A slow, sluggish and halting response.

MARTIN SMITH:

The virus was about to slam into Europe.

Milan, Italy

MARTIN SMITH:

On Feb. 19, a championship soccer match was set to kick off in Italy’s largest stadium, capacity 75,000.

The Atalanta team from Bergamo in Lombardy won the game. Afterwards, Bergamo became the epicenter of Italy’s outbreak.

Dr. Stefano Fagiuoli of Bergamo remembers.

STEFANO FAGIUOLI:

I had 10 colleagues from our hospital which went to see the game, and 10 of them, they all got infected.

MARTIN SMITH:

Oh, my God.

When I spoke to Dr. Fagiuoli he was quarantined at home after catching the virus himself.

STEFANO FAGIUOLI:

It's interesting that the two main outbreaks in Spain are close to Madrid and Valencia, which was the other—the opponent team.

MARTIN SMITH:

In the beginning, Italy, like China and Iran, was slow to react.

Dr. Marco Vergano is an anesthesiologist in Turin.

MARCO VERGANO, M.D., Anesthesiologist, Turin:

We were conducting the usual—a normal life, a social life in the last week of February. And it's really difficult to implement social distancing measures when you don't have your hospitals already overwhelmed by patients.

MARTIN SMITH:

But they were losing valuable time. Flights were cut from China, but as in the U.S., Italy hesitated to do more. The job was left up to town mayors.

MALE ITALIAN MAYOR 1:

[Speaking Italian] Do you want all of us to get ill? You are irresponsible idiots, colossal idiots.

MALE ITALIAN MAYOR 2:

[Speaking Italian] We'll send armed police, and we’ll be sending them with flamethrowers.

MALE ITALIAN MAYOR 3:

[Speaking Italian] All these hairdressers coming into your homes. What the hell are they for? Who the hell is going to see you?

MARCO VERGANO:

They became viral on social media. People I think realized quite soon that this was a way to protect them and protect others.

MALE ITALIAN MAYOR 4:

[Speaking Italian] You can’t play ping pong. Go! Go home to your PlayStations!

MARCO VERGANO:

Probably this happened maybe a couple of weeks later than was necessary. Because what we know is that if you implement some real stringent social distancing measures at the beginning of the surge, and since this is an exponential surge, just maybe 24 or 48 hours earlier is enough to avoid more than 30 or 40% of the number of infected people three weeks later.

MARTIN SMITH:

The closing of flights from China had done little to stem the spread. In January, the government of Italy was celebrating a new initiative to increase Chinese tourism.

Two Chinese tourists from Wuhan arrived in Milan on Jan. 23; they tested positive a week later.

The virus was already here.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Italy’s surge in cases now marks the biggest coronavirus outbreak outside of Asia.

MALE NEWSREADER:

—with the death toll leaping by more than 50% in one day—

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Italy is the hardest hit country in Europe with more than 7,300 reported infections.

MARTIN SMITH:

Was there a moment in time when this really seized your attention?

MARCO VERGANO:

In my case, personally, it was that Skype call from the task force in Lombardia from this friend of mine. He told me, "I have seen scenes in hospitals that I will never forget in my whole life." He described the hospitals with people in hallways and people dying outside of hospitals because even there were not enough ambulances, or ambulances were in a queue outside of the hospitals.

MARTIN SMITH:

Hospitals in Italy’s north were overwhelmed. There were not enough beds, let alone ventilators.

MARCO VERGANO:

In a condition with a severe shortage of resources, and maybe you have 10 people in need of a ventilator, and only one or two ventilators available.

MARTIN SMITH:

And they need to be used by younger people that have a greater chance of survival, right?

MARCO VERGANO:

Yeah.

MARTIN SMITH:

The government did not order a nationwide lockdown until March 9.

To date, over 34,000 Italians have died of COVID-19.

Seeing what was happening around the world, top American public health officials were increasingly convinced that halting flights from China was not enough.

ANTHONY FAUCI:

I think most health officials agree that at best it delays and, as the secretary says, kind of pauses things—

MARTIN SMITH:

Dr. Fauci and two other officials planned to confront the president on Feb. 26.

ANTHONY FAUCI:

A broad pandemic throughout the world, travel restrictions are not going to help. You can’t just travel restrict everyone.

MICHAEL SHEAR:

The public health officials—Redfield, Anthony Fauci at the NIH, Stephen Hahn at FDA—they had all decided that was going to be the day they were going to tell the president, "Hey, look, we need to be more aggressive here."

MARTIN SMITH:

But before they could do that, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, a top CDC official, spoke out publicly.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Tonight, the CDC is calling the coronavirus a "tremendous health threat."

NANCY MESSONNIER:

We are working to ready our public health workforce to respond to local cases and the possibility this outbreak could become a pandemic.

MARTIN SMITH:

It was a dire warning.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

The virus has killed more than 2,000 people and infected nearly 77,000 worldwide. Carter Evans has more—

MARTIN SMITH:

The president was on his way to India.

MALE VOICE:

Thank you, Mr. President.

MARTIN SMITH:

There, he was reassuring.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

You may ask about the coronavirus, which is very well under control in our country. We have very few people with it.

MARTIN SMITH:

But as he prepared to return home, Messonnier spoke to reporters again.

NANCY MESSONNIER:

Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country. It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Federal health officials said today the coronavirus will certainly begin spreading—

MALE NEWSREADER:

It is not a question of if, but when.

MICHAEL SHEAR:

As Nancy Messonnier is giving this briefing to reporters, the president is just getting on Air Force One in India to fly home. So as he's flying home, the stock market crashes 1,000 points—

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Wall Street continues to sell on those coronavirus fears, the Dow falling close to 900 points today—

MICHAEL SHEAR:

—TV is broadcasting nonstop about how this is going to change the way Americans live. And of course the president hadn't been briefed on any of this. So by the time Air Force One lands, the Wednesday morning on the 26th, he's fuming. He's angry. The big economic success that he's constantly touting is under assault, from his viewpoint.

He picks up the phone and calls Azar, yells at Azar, says, "You're scaring people to death here. What's going on?" But the big consequence of that is that the briefing that the public health officials had intended to do for Trump that evening after he'd returned, that briefing never happens.

MARTIN SMITH:

Angry with his public health advisers, Trump refused to meet with them.

Talk of more aggressive measures, such as stay-at-home orders and strict social distancing, was put off. Messonnier’s warnings were heresy.

February 26, 2020

JEREMY KONYNDYK:

They then the next day dedicated an entire presidential press conference to walking back the warning and the assessment that she had given.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Thank you very much, everybody. Thank you very much.

JEREMY KONYNDYK:

And with the benefit of a month's hindsight, she was 100% right, She accurately anticipated what was about to happen, she tried to warn the country of that and the White House tried to furiously walk it back.

FEMALE REPORTER:

Mr. President, the CDC said yesterday that they believe it’s inevitable that the virus will spread in the United States, and it’s not a question of “if” but “when.” Do you agree with that assessment?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Well, I don’t think it’s inevitable. It probably will. It possibly will. It could be at a very small level or it could be at a larger level. Whatever happens, we’re totally prepared. We have the best people in the world.

JEREMY KONYNDYK:

As someone who served in government, I can tell you, that kind of behavior sends a very, very clear signal to government workers about what is and is not permissible to say.

MARTIN SMITH:

It's interesting that it's very much like what happened in China in late December and early January.

JEREMY KONYNDYK:

The parallels are very striking. I think it's immensely irresponsible of people in this administration to be blaming China for that kind of behavior, even as they have engaged in it themselves.

MARTIN SMITH:

Dr. Nancy Messonnier would be sidelined. Alex Azar was removed as head of the task force. He was replaced by Vice President Pence.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Mike is going to be in charge, and Mike will report back to me, but he’s got a certain talent for this, and I'm going to ask Mike Pence to say a few words, please. Thank you. Mike?

MARTIN SMITH:

What talent Vice President Pence was bringing was not clear.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE:

Thank you, Mr. President—

MARTIN SMITH:

When he was governor of Indiana he had slashed the state’s public health budget. As a staunch evangelical Christian, he had questioned scientific advice.

FEMALE REPORTER:

You don’t feel like you’re being replaced?

ALEX AZAR:

Not in the least. I’m—I—when this was mentioned to me, I was delighted that I get to have the vice president helping in this way. Delighted, absolutely—

MARTIN SMITH:

The daily press briefings became a platform for the president’s positive messaging.

MICHAEL SHEAR:

You are hearing the line that the risk for Americans is low, which comes from everybody's mouth, from the president on down.

February 29, 2020

MALE REPORTER:

Mr. President, how should Americans prepare for this virus? Should they go on with their daily lives? Change their routine? What should they do?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Well, I hope they don’t change their routine, but maybe Anthony, I'll let you answer that, or Bob, do you want to answer that?

ROBERT REDFIELD:

Sure, Mr. President. Thank you. I think it’s really important that—as I said, the risk at this time is low. The American public needs to go on with their normal lives—

MARTIN SMITH:

You said, Feb. 29, "The risk at this time is low. The American public needs to go on with their normal lives."

ROBERT REDFIELD:

It was true at that time, Martin. I think the risk was low.

MARTIN SMITH:

But by this time, China had had an outbreak, Iran was in the midst of a major outbreak, as was Italy. And you're saying at this time the risk is low.

ROBERT REDFIELD:

The risk was low to the general American public at the time.

MARTIN SMITH:

But the fact is that we had stumbled in February to test adequately, to test enough people to know where things were going. How can you say that when we had such inadequate testing?

ROBERT REDFIELD:

Well, the purpose, I'm sure, of your documentary is to help identify lessons and correct them so we don't repeat this. Many of us are in the arena, where, as Teddy Roosevelt would say, we're marred and bloodied. We're trying to dare greatly. Hopefully, at best, we'll know the triumph of high achievement, and at worst we'll fail by daring greatly.

February 10, 2020

Manchester, NH

MARTIN SMITH:

Throughout February, the president had continued to hold his rallies—

February 19, 2020

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Hello, Phoenix.

February 21, 2020

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Hello, Las Vegas! Great to be with you.

February 20, 2020

Colorado Springs, CO

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Where else would you like to be but a Trump rally, right?

MARTIN SMITH:

He blamed others for exaggerating the threat.

February 28, 2020

Charleston, SC

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus, you know that, right? Coronavirus. They're politicizing it. And this is their new hoax. But you know, we did something—

MARTIN SMITH:

The president would not call for social distancing for another 2 1/2 weeks.

DAVID HO:

We have leaders throughout much of January and February saying that this is a hoax.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Thirty-five thousand people on average die each year from the flu, did anyone know that? Thirty-five thousand. And so far we have lost nobody to coronavirus in the United States.

DAVID HO:

It's a complete denial of science, and leading to all sorts of decisions that are harmful to our country, to our planet.

MARTIN SMITH:

You're quoting the president. He made these comments. Is it your view that he knew better than that, or was he simply misinformed?

DAVID HO:

I cannot psychoanalyze the president, but we know that he has a tendency to believe he's the best at everything. He probably thinks he's better than the scientists.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

And you wonder, the press is in hysteria mode. Fake news, and their camera just went off! The camera—

DAVID HO:

I think if he were practicing medicine, he would be negligent and he would be prosecuted.

STEPHEN MORRISON:

The president's behavior, the president's resort to repeated falsehoods, is a function of the way he is approaching this crisis. He's approaching this crisis about how it affects his own political survivability and reelectability.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

This is a list of the different countries. United States is rated No. 1, most prepared—

JEREMY KONYNDYK:

I would equate it to something like seeing a hurricane offshore that has just taken out a couple of Caribbean islands and is strengthening to Category 5 as it heads for Florida, and not bothering to tell people to get off the beach and board their windows, and only starting to do that when you see the storm surge coming ashore, by which point it's of course far too late.

Seattle, USA

MARTIN SMITH:

The first COVID-19 death to be recognized in America was on Feb. 29, near Seattle. It was followed by a cluster of cases in a nursing home.

But the big bomb would land on New York City.

From the suburb of New Rochelle, 20 miles north of the city, an estate lawyer commuted daily by train into his office in midtown Manhattan. In late February, he started feeling sick. On Feb. 27, he checked himself into a New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Bronxville, New York.

Lawrence Garbuz tested positive on March 2.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

The man, in his 50s, lives in Westchester but works in Manhattan—

MALE NEWSREADER:

The New York City Health Department says he is in severe condition, and now the entire family in quarantine.

MARTIN SMITH:

For Dr. Griffin, who had been seeing patients with COVID-like symptoms since mid-February, the Garbuz case confirmed what he had suspected all along.

DANIEL GRIFFIN:

This gentleman had not traveled, so he had obviously acquired it in the New York area.

MARTIN SMITH:

Dr. Griffin had been pressing for more testing for weeks. But because of a lack of testing capacity, he says the CDC told him he could only test Garbuz’s immediate contacts.

DANIEL GRIFFIN:

So our impression at this point in the end of February, beginning of March, is that we already had community transmission of COVID-19 in the New York area. But you're only letting us test people that have had contact with this man. We don't think he got it in New Rochelle, we suspect he got it commuting to and from the city. We would like to start testing all these people with respiratory symptoms that we don't have a diagnosis for.

MARTIN SMITH:

What's their response?

DANIEL GRIFFIN:

We still have our rigid criteria. Unless someone is really severely ill, they need to have a direct contact or a travel history.

MARTIN SMITH:

And what's your response to them?

DANIEL GRIFFIN:

Our response is we think this gentleman got it in the community, we think there's community spread and we would like to do broader testing.

MARTIN SMITH:

But you're not allowed to.

DANIEL GRIFFIN:

We're not allowed to.

MARTIN SMITH:

Jessica Caro is a nurse who works at a New York-Presbyterian clinic.

JESSICA CARO:

We first heard the news of the lawyer from New Rochelle getting sick, and that scared me because I live maybe a 10-minute drive away from there.

MARTIN SMITH:

Her 16-year-old daughter, Jianna, was the first one in her family to get sick.

JESSICA CARO:

She was complaining to me that she had a fever and you know, Nurse Mom was just throwing her some Motrin and saying, "You'll be fine, you'll be fine." And I finally got a thermometer on her, I almost dropped it because it was 105. Not a 100.5, it was 105.

MARTIN SMITH:

Wanting to get her daughter tested, Jessica called New York’s COVID hotline.

MALE VOICE ON PHONE:

Thank you for calling the New York State COVID-19 Hotline.

MARTIN SMITH:

Eventually she got a live person on the line, but it didn’t help.

JESSICA CARO:

This man was like, "Has your daughter traveled to China?" And I'm like, "No." He's like, "Well, has she had contact with somebody that's positive?" I'm like, "Well, we don't know." And the last question was, "Is she short of breath?" And I'm like, "Well, not currently, but she's very sick." And the man tells me, "Well, if she's not short of breath, she doesn't qualify."

I remember hanging up the phone and—I could feel the heat coming off of me, just how angry I was.

Los Angeles, CA

MARTIN SMITH:

There was a shortage of tests across America.

Dr. Susan Butler-Wu runs a clinical microbiology lab in Los Angeles.

SUSAN BUTLER-WU, Ph.D., Keck School of Medicine of USC:

Testing was very restricted. You have to get approval from your local public health authority in order to be able to do that testing, and they then have to coordinate with the CDC to get approval to do the testing. So, it was a very arduous process.

MARTIN SMITH:

Because of shortages, the CDC limited who qualified for a test.

SUSAN BUTLER-WU:

At one point testing was limited to people coming in from mainland China, but viruses don't respect borders. They don't respect anything like that. And so, I think we were always way behind because of that.

It wasn't probably until later in January-February that I really started to feel like, even if the public health labs were able to offer this testing, it's just not sufficient. We're not going to be able to respond to something of this magnitude.

MARTIN SMITH:

I've talked to a number of doctors and they say, "Look, if I couldn't tell them that my patient had been to China, they couldn't get a test."

ROBERT REDFIELD:

Yeah, that's a decision that's made individually by each health department, how they wanted to do that. I will say that early on in January and February, the cases that were recognized in the United States were largely linked to Wuhan, China. And so those were the case criteria as this new epidemic happened.

MARTIN SMITH:

By early March, the CDC allowed for more people to get tests. But shortages persisted—though not for celebrities.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Reports that Kevin Durant has been tested positive for the coronavirus.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

On social media, criticism for celebrities who've been tested, like Celine Dion, Heidi Klum and reportedly Kris Jenner.

ARIELLE CHARNAS:

Whatever it may be, I'm going to quarantine myself.

MALE NEWSREADER:

How are nonsymptomatic professional athletes getting tests while others are waiting in line?

MARTIN SMITH:

We see stars being able to be tested where people without means or without celebrity status are unable to get tested.

DANIEL GRIFFIN:

Yeah, unfortunately a lot of issues with regard to inequity in our society have really come out. But I think that people get a little bit intolerant when it's actually affecting the health of them, their loved ones, their children; when they realize that you're concerned about your mother, she can't get tested but a VIP can get tested. I think that during a pandemic, there's something quite wrong with that occurring.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Our response is among the very worst in the world, certainly among all the major countries.

MARTIN SMITH:

By the end of the first week in March there were 337 cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. and 17 deaths. But cases were doubling every several days, and only around 4,000 people had been tested.

When the president visited the CDC on March 6, he flatly denied there was a shortage.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Anybody right now and yesterday, anybody that needs a test, gets a test. They’re there. They have the tests, and the tests are beautiful.

MARTIN SMITH:

You know, March 6 is the date that you won't forget where the president came to the CDC. He's wearing the hat, "Make America Great Again." And he states that everyone who wants a test can get a test. Did he believe that, do you think?

ROBERT REDFIELD:

Again, I'm not going to comment on what I think the president believed or didn't believe.

MARTIN SMITH:

Did you talk to him? Did you say to him, "Look, Mr. President, with all due respect, it's not true what you're saying"?

ROBERT REDFIELD:

Yeah. I'm not going to comment on the conversations I've had with the president.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

If there’s a doctor that wants to test, if there's somebody coming off a ship, they’re all set. They have them out—

SUSAN BUTLER-WU:

I remember watching that and thinking, "I'd like the ability to test patients in my hospital at a much larger scale than what I'm doing, and I know I can't do that, either." So at the time it didn't reflect the reality of what I was experiencing as the clinical laboratory director in a hospital. Not at all.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

And the tests are all perfect, like the letter was perfect, the transcription was perfect—

SCOTT BECKER, CEO, Association of Public Health Labs:

It was a made-for-TV event and it was sound bytes. But the reality of the situation was quite different, and I think most Americans knew that at the time.

MARTIN SMITH:

The president had to have known.

SCOTT BECKER:

I would expect that he did.

MARTIN SMITH:

But even had there been enough tests, the U.S. was facing a shortage of nasal swabs, masks and other equipment needed to carry out the tests. And the president placed responsibility on state and local authorities to acquire their own supplies.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

—respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment, try getting it yourselves. We will be backing you, but try getting it yourselves.

JEREMY KONYNDYK:

When he says things like, "The governors in the states should be trying to look after their own needs and get these things themselves," what that means is there is no single picture of what the country needs.

MARTIN SMITH:

It's "you're on your own, boys and girls."

JEREMY KONYNDYK:

You're on your own, but we're also going to be buying up all the supplies that we told you you need. Every state is basically going on eBay and bidding against all the others and against the federal government to try and get the basic supplies that they need.

MARTIN SMITH:

By March 11, there were 1,300 cases in the U.S. and 36 deaths. It was then that President Trump decided to expand his travel ban to European countries.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

My fellow Americans, to keep new cases from entering our shores we will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days.

MARTIN SMITH:

The next day, Dr. Fauci testified before Congress and admitted they were still failing to test adequately.

ANTHONY FAUCI:

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

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ (D-Fla.):

A failing? Yes.

ANTHONY FAUCI:

It is a failing. I mean, let’s admit it.

SCOTT BECKER:

He was spot on and I'm glad he said it. Somebody had to say it.

ANTHONY FAUCI:

The way people in other countries are doing it, we’re not set up for that.

SUSAN BUTLER-WU:

I concur with Dr. Fauci: We've completely failed. This is a massive failure.

But at the end of the day, the whole way that health care is set up in this country is the failure, too. Right? That every lab is fighting for itself, every state is fighting for itself, every city is fighting for itself. I mean, that's not what you need in something like this.

March 20, 2020

PETER ALEXANDER:

Is it possible that your impulse to put a positive spin on things may be giving Americans a false sense of hope—

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

No, I don’t think so.

PETER ALEXANDER:

—and misrepresenting the preparedness right now?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

No, I don’t think so. I think that—I think it's got—no, no, no—

PETER ALEXANDER:

The ship has already sailed, the not-yet-approved drugs.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Such a lovely question.

PETER ALEXANDER:

What do you say to the Americans who are scared, though? I guess nearly 200 dead, 14,000 who are sick. Millions, as you witnessed, who are scared right now. What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

I say that you're a terrible reporter, that's what I say. Go ahead.

I think it’s a very nasty question, and I think it’s a very bad signal that you're putting out to the American people. The American people are looking for answers and they are looking for hope, and you're doing sensationalism—

MARTIN SMITH:

By the end of March, there were more than 5,500 deaths.

Bronx, NY

MARTIN SMITH:

Jessica Caro, the clinic nurse, was never able to get her daughter Jianna tested. Fortunately, Jianna recovered.

But two weeks later, Jessica’s aunt, Amelia, spiked a high fever and cough.

JESSICA CARO:

I get a phone call from my mom that my aunt is ill. And that's when I started to get really scared, because you kept hearing, "The hospital's filling up," and now I'm like, "Wait, this is not good."

MARTIN SMITH:

Amelia was hospitalized, but in the meantime Jessica got another call: It was her mother.

JESSICA CARO:

She said, "I have to tell you something: I have a fever." And I said, "No, Mami, please. Don't tell me that." And she goes, "Yeah, I have a fever and I started coughing and I'm scared."

MARTIN SMITH:

Jessica’s mother was hospitalized on April 7.

The next day, just down the hospital hallway, her sister Amelia, Jessica’s aunt, died.

By now there were over 18,000 deaths from coronavirus in America.

JESSICA CARO:

The one time that I spoke to her on the phone, she was very out of breath. Every word was labored, and so we at that point were just conversing by text.

But then I had texted her at some point in the evening and she hadn't answered me back. And I now started getting worried, and next thing you know I get a text from her. It was garbled gibberish, and then it was, "Call me, call me now." And the doctor was there, and the doctor is telling me, "Unfortunately, at this point we need to intubate."

OK, thank you, I appreciate it. Thank you so much.

MARTIN SMITH:

Since visiting was prohibited, Jessica could only reach her mother through FaceTime.

JESSICA CARO:

Hi, Mami! Hi, Mama, do you hear me?

In my heart, I know she was able to hear me, but it was hard to see her like that. I even promised her that when she got better, I'd take her to her favorite place, which was the casino. [Laughs] And not being able to be there and hold her hand and let her hear my voice has just been the worst of all of this.

[Cries] Mama, I love you. I love you so much. You're so strong, and you're fighting, I know you are, I know. I need you to get better, Mami, OK?

MARTIN SMITH:

After 16 days on a ventilator, Jessica’s mother, Anne Martinez, passed away. It happened on April 23; it was her 80th birthday.

By then, over 50,000 Americans had died, around 15,000 of them in New York state.

The bodies of the dead were stored in refrigerated trucks next to the hospitals.

When we interviewed Dr. Ho on March 31, he described New York this way.

DAVID HO:

New York is the new Wuhan right now. There's tremendous carnage seen in all the hospitals in this area. They're scared, they're overwhelmed. It's like being hit by a tsunami of patients. And they’re not well equipped to fight this.

MARTIN SMITH:

Who do you blame for this?

JESSICA CARO:

I blame the government. I honestly—I blame the government for not alerting us sooner that this was going to be an issue, not consolidating a nationwide stockpile and not putting people in charge of giving it to who needs it in an orderly fashion. Just being a citizen, not even being a health care professional, and watching the news, I can see how just incompetent everything is.

MARTIN SMITH:

Jessica Caro’s mother and aunt immigrated here from the Dominican Republic. Black and Latino communities have been the hardest hit.

CLEAVON GILMAN:

Blacks and Latinos are grossly, disproportionately killed by this virus.

MARTIN SMITH:

Cleavon Gilman is an emergency room doctor at New York-Presbyterian.

CLEAVON GILMAN:

That's just due to that a large majority of us live in housing projects, as well. A lot of us are also essential workers—MTA officers, grocery clerks. And that's just taking a toll on our whole community.

MARTIN SMITH:

Across the city the virus has been twice as deadly for blacks and Latinos as whites. And poverty is also a dangerous risk factor.

RAJIV SHAH, M.D., Administrator, USAID, 2010-15:

I think this crisis has unmasked a tremendous vulnerability in America, where 40, 50, 60% of American households barely get by day to day, have lost faith in the American dream for their children, that their kids can do better than they can. And now our society will have to grapple with and deal with the reality that we can’t just hide and pretend that’s not the case anymore.

MARTIN SMITH:

Today, the total number of Americans who have died is more than 115,000.

A Columbia University study has calculated that had a stay-at-home order been imposed at the end of February, it would have prevented 83% of all U.S. deaths.

MARTIN SMITH:

It's remarkable to me that in the Vietnam War, I think 55,000 American soldiers died, and we're now saying we might see four times that many people die.

JEREMY KONYNDYK:

Yep. It's astounding. You know, 9/11, we lost 3,000 people, and in response to that the country built an infrastructure for protecting against terrorist attacks that costs an average of $150 billion to $250 billion a year. We need to take this threat as seriously as we take the threat of terrorism. It has the potential to kill at least as many, if not considerably more, Americans. And I hope coming out of this, whenever we do eventually come out of this, we'll finally take seriously the importance of health security and public health investments.

MARTIN SMITH:

Finally, there was the toll on health care workers. In New York, scores of health care workers died of the virus.

New Yorkers tried to show their support. Every day thousands went to the streets and to their windows to say thank you.

All the while, the number of bodies overwhelmed the city. Trucks made their daily runs to a potter’s field where the poorest among us are laid to rest.

Worldwide, the virus has killed more than 430,000 people.

In the U.S., a nationwide lockdown has led to the steepest drop in employment since the Great Depression.

Now, countries around the world are beginning to reopen. Health care officials warn of a second wave.

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American Voices: A Nation in Turmoil
FRONTLINE presents a post-election special on the lives, fears and hopes of Americans in the chaotic months leading up to the historic presidential contest.
November 17, 2020