Editorial: Once again, a nation unprepared

Published: 3/5/2020 5:00:43 AM
Modified: 3/5/2020 5:00:33 AM

King County, Washington, is the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. Ten of the 11 deaths from the virus in this country have occurred in Washington, nine in King County.

Yesterday, a 100-doctor clinic five miles from the Kirkland, Washington, nursing home where five deaths have occurred was out of protective face masks. They have been out for days. They are also nearly out of hand sanitizer.

Fearing a possible quarantine, residents have stripped store shelves bare. Toilet paper is scarce. The situation in the Concord area is not quite so dire, but masks are nowhere to be found. Same with hand sanitizer and rubbing alcohol.

Government exists to curb excesses of human behavior, one of which is hoarding in times of scarcity. Another is profiteering. Face masks that normally sell for a few dollars apiece are being offered on Ebay for $25 and up. ABC News reports that cases of Purell are being offered online for more than $800, making it cheaper to sterilize hands with bottom-shelf vodka.

Despite the AIDS epidemic of a quarter-century ago, avian flu, swine flu and SARS, the government once again was unprepared. There were too few test kits available to quickly tell who was infected and who had a cold or seasonal flu. The government stockpile of masks is woefully inadequate. That’s making it hard for the health care providers needed to treat virus victims to protect themselves and stay on the job.

Only recently has the government offered to buy and stockpile excess masks and respirators so manufacturers won’t fear getting stuck with them if the virus threat passes quickly.

The Trump administration, which earlier had cut funding for the CDC and other government entities created to respond to a pandemic threat, bungled attempts to inform the public. The president, whose credibility is essentially nil, tweeted out false or misleading assurances that the virus would disappear with warm weather. It might, or might not.

Because the president had no one he trusted with health care expertise to oversee the nation’s response, he put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the effort. Not exactly comforting. Administration officials, in discussing the threat, contradicted each other and, worse, the experts.

No one knows what course this current pandemic threat will take but several things are clear. The current administration is incompetent and must be replaced. A bipartisan congressional effort, with input from experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, should establish disease response protocols and set levels for stockpiling critical supplies that err on the side of caution.

Low-wage service workers, like restaurant employees, child care workers and home health aides, are among the Americans least likely to have paid sick leave and health insurance. They have no choice but to work when sick and are thus a major vector for the spread of disease. Congress should enact a mandatory minimum sick leave with pay policy, one that is subsidized by taxpayers to protect small employers.

At some point, ideally before many more lives are lost, the 2020 coronavirus threat will pass. Its occurrence should mark the last time the nation was so unprepared for the inevitable.

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