In a maelstrom of mistakes, failing to learn from this pandemic would be the gravest error

March 30, 2020 12:01 am

Health care workers screen a patient for COVID-19 at a drive-through coronavirus testing site on March 18, 2020 in Arlington, Virginia. Fewer patients are relying on PCR tests, preferring at-home antigen tests whose results aren’t typically reported back to the state. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about an interview I did on a bleak day in December of 2016 in Buchanan County.

In the gravel lot of a maintenance yard for coal-bed methane machinery, a 68-year-old heavy equipment operator was showing me his truck — festooned with Trump and “Hillary for Prison” stickers — for a story I was reporting on whether the president-elect could deliver on his promise to resuscitate the dying coal industry. (He couldn’t, of course, and hasn’t.)

But back then, John Compton was riding high.

“He’s going to tear up the playhouse up in Washington, and that’s a damn plus,” he told me.

Mr. Compton’s metaphor has proven apt, if not for the reason he meant. During more than three years in office, Trump has shown himself to be the same petulant bully he’s always been, only now he’s at the helm of a nation of 330 million desperately trying to come to grips with a pandemic that is killing thousands around the world and will kill and sicken more people here.

There has been endless coverage of how Trump’s flippant and often false remarks about COVID-19 in January and February put us miles behind the curve in dealing with the virus, as well as the problems with testing and a shortage of ventilators and protective medical equipment that continue — more than two months since the U.S. recorded its first case — to be the most pressing obstacles to getting it under control..

It’s almost like putting a shallow, self-obsessed, spiteful reality show star in charge of the country was a really bad idea.

But perhaps the most alarming indication that our ailing American experiment might be headed for life support (preferably in a hospital that has a spare bed and hasn’t run out of ventilators) is how lack of a coherent virus response from the federal government left states, private labs and universities to come up with ad hoc solutions and vie with each other for testing kits and materials and medical equipment now in scarce supply.

“We’re not waiting for the feds to step up,” the chief health officer in Montgomery County, Maryland, which is looking to get testing kits from other countries, told The Washington Post last week.  “We’ve known that they’re just not, so we’re not waiting for that to happen.”

It has also created a patchwork of emergency orders, closures and other measures across the country, where every governor is essentially fending for herself or himself. Trump, bewilderingly, among a string of mixed messages, dragged his feet in using federal powers under the Defense Production Act to get ventilators, protective equipment and other essentials to where they need to go.

“Allowing the free market to determine availability and pricing is not the way we should be dealing with this national crisis at this time,” Gov. Ralph Northam said Wednesday.

That said, there’s also been plenty of blame to go around. I’ve been reluctant to criticize Northam’s response in the midst of this crisis. I’m sure everyone in his administration is doing their best to deal with a public health emergency the likes of which hasn’t been seen in this country since probably the 1918 flu epidemic.

But it’s worth pointing out that Northam has been slower to act than other leaders around the region and country. He initially declined to shut down bars and restaurants, saying he was “more about carrots than sticks” and citing a statistic that Virginians get roughly half of their meals from restaurants. I’ve asked Northam’s spokeswoman for the provenance of that stat twice, but never got a response. Last week, he changed his mind, shutting down restaurant dining rooms as part of sweeping new restrictions closing some non-essential businesses.

A day after saying decisions on closing schools would be made at the local level, he likewise changed course and ordered them closed for two weeks before extending that to the rest of the school year. Virginia officials, for some strange reason, kept making it a point of emphasis that there was no evidence of community spread when it was, according to some experts, likely already a foregone conclusion because of the paucity of testing.

And, just last week, he ordered hospitals to postpone elective surgeries well after it became obvious that the virus had the potential to overwhelm Virginia hospital capacity.

It’s a tough balancing act for a pro-business governor to order shutdowns that will leave thousands out of work and could mean that some establishments never reopen. However, given the fumbling federal response, it seemed apparent weeks ago that such steps would be necessary if there was to be any hope of limiting the spread of the virus here.

“One might assume that a governor who spent most of his career as a physician would be among the first to press for quick, decisive action to combat a deadly, fast-spreading infectious disease,” Washington Post correspondent Robert McCartney wrote. “One would be mistaken.”

Maryland’s Gov. Larry Hogan took some (gentle) issue with Northam’s initial reluctance on closing restaurants and bars for dine-in service. Other officials here have also called on him to go further faster, including implementing a “stay at home” order like in New York, California or elsewhere, which Northam has resisted.

“Virginia must take action now to halt the spread of COVID-19 before it results in further illness and death within the commonwealth,” Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker wrote on behalf of the City Council. “The council does not believe that this Executive Order’s social distancing measures are sufficient to contain the spread of COVID-19 in Virginia.”

Northam, asked several times why he hasn’t taken more aggressive action earlier, has fallen back on words like “fluid” and “dynamic” to describe the virus response. He also claimed the distinction between his urging that Virginians to stay home and (like other states) ordering them to do so was a matter of “semantics.”

But it’s not semantics to say that some Virginia workers are likely left in limbo, risking firing if they follow the governor’s advice against the wishes of their bosses.

“People are going to die that don’t need to because we will not have hospital capacity. We have a very limited number of hospital beds, relative to the number of sick that we’re going to see,” said Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, who has urged Northam to issue a shelter in place order, in an interview with a local TV station.

If past is prologue, and Northam issues a broader lockdown only after more grim statistics on deaths, infections and hospitalizations emerge, it could be too little, too late. I hope not.

It remains likewise troubling that Dr. Lilian Peake, the state epidemiologist, still says the state has no modeling (at least that she’s willing to share) that indicates how much worse the pandemic will get here.

Will it be the horror that is befalling New York, Detroit, New Orleans, Italy and Spain? If state officials have any inkling of what awaits Virginia, they’re not saying publicly. Not with any specificity anyway.

And what’s more, the governor has opted to space out his briefings to once every two days (during the week at least). There was no briefing this weekend.

That seems an incongruous decision given the escalating number of infections and lots of unanswered questions about Virginia’s hospital bed capacity, testing regimen, school closures and the myriad facets of this crisis.  Northam’s administration might not have much new to add, but it’s important to have a daily opportunity for reporters to get questions answered and information out to the public.

It seems inevitable that COVID-19 will be a major milestone in the history of the United States. Coming at a time of toxic politics, deep distrust of government, media and institutions, will we take a turn for the better or the worse? Could we shift back towards respecting expertise, deference to science and a realization that the institutions we have, while fallible, like all creations of human beings, have a crucial role in national emergencies and our daily lives? Could we rediscover the meaning of  “e pluribus unum?”

Or we will plunge deeper into political and cultural tribalism and partisan gridlock, further eroding our ability to respond to health crises, threats and to solve big problems confronting our nation?

Time will tell. But, while this will in all likelihood get worse before it gets better, let’s all keep meticulous notes on the shortcomings this pandemic is revealing in our government, our health care system, our social safety net, our economy and labor laws and especially how we pick our politicians.

Of all the catastrophic mistakes that have been made in managing the COVID-19 crisis, failing to learn the painful lessons it is teaching us would be the biggest.

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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers and was previously editor of the Virginia Mercury. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Contact him at [email protected]