The first case of COVID-19 in the United States was recorded on January 20th, 2020. For the next month and a half, the U.S. continued operating normally, while many other countries began their lockdown. One month later, on February 29th, 2020, the federal government approved a national testing program, but it was too little too late. The U.S. was already in pandemic mode, and completely unprepared. Frontline workers lacked access to N-95 masks, infected patients struggled to get tested, and national leaders informed the public that COVID-19 was nothing more than the common flu. Ultimately, this unpreparedness led to thousands of avoidable deaths and long-term changes to daily life. With the risk of novel infectious diseases emerging in the future being high, it is imperative that the U.S. learn from its failure and better prepare for future pandemics now. By strengthening our public health response and re-establishing government organizations specialized in disease control, we have the ability to prevent more years spent masked and six feet apart.
The United States’ inability to unite was exposed to the world in the outbreak of COVID-19. For several years now, citizens of the U.S. have become increasingly socially and politically polarized; the handling of this pandemic was no exception. The pandemic came at an interesting time for our country amidst a presidential election. With President Trump already in the spotlight, the stage was set for him to execute a plan for the American people. As months passed, the only thing that changed were the numbers of cases; cities and states found themselves on their own for the installation and execution of safety measures for their people. President Trump publicly questioned and distrusted scientists and specialists affiliated with the CDC, discouraged mask wearing, deconstructed government committees installed for pandemics exactly like this one, and withdrew from the World Health Organization (WHO), which offers data and other information for handling a pandemic as a collective. Under Trump’s guidance, the U.S. tallied 8,855,152 cases and 227,673 deaths -- the highest totals of any country in the world.
Although the U.S. mounted an unsuccessful COVID-19 response, many other countries managed to successfully contain the virus. If we look at countries like New Zealand and South Korea, where the total death count is 25 and 474 respectively, we can learn a lot about what an effective pandemic response looks like. While each country handled the virus slightly different, their approaches shared a common theme: they were rooted in science, not politics. In New Zealand, the approach was to “go hard and go early.” Only two days after the WHO announced evidence of human transmission, the New Zealand Ministry of Health got to work on their pandemic response. With only 102 cases, the Prime Minister cautiously moved the country to Alert Level 2, but public health officials lobbied for an even more aggressive plan. Abiding by the theme of science, the Prime Minister followed the experts’ advice and immediately moved the country into their highest alert level for five weeks. The result: only 1,971 total cases and 25 deaths to date. Moving up the globe, in South Korea, the approach was to “test, trace, and isolate.” In an effort to increase their testing capacity, the government licensed clinics and private companies to conduct their own tests at the onset of the pandemic. In early February, South Korea performed 3000 tests a day (whereas the US performed only 100 a day), and by March, they performed 20,000 rapid tests a day. This aggressive testing protocol allowed South Korea to successfully contain their initial outbreak in just a matter of weeks.
Interestingly, many attribute South Korea’s successful COVID-19 response to their failed MERS response in 2015. After experiencing the largest MERS outbreak outside of the Middle East, they were determined to not go down the same road. Failure is often a great teaching tool, and the U.S. can learn a lot from its unsuccessful COVID-19 response. It is imperative that our country apply these lessons by creating better plans for infectious disease outbreaks in order to avoid more pandemics down the road.
- Brooke Guiffre & Maddie Clarke