Investigation shows more lives could have been saved in COVID response

Gary Peters

ALPENA — Many of the deaths and the economic fallout seen early in the COVID-19 pandemic could have been prevented, an investigation by the federal government concludes.

The results of an investigation commissioned by the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee found poor communication, a lack of coordination, and politics resulted in a slow and uncoordinated response to COVID-19 early in the pandemic.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, a Democrat from Michigan, chairs the committee. He released the final report from the investigation late last week.

Peters said the 240-page report covers December 2019 through March 2020, early in the pandemic, and it identifies significant failures in the federal government’s initial response and offers recommendations that could lead to a smoother reaction to future health emergencies if implemented.

Peters said the report concluded that the federal government failed to sufficiently invest in public health preparedness across multiple administrations, which left the government ill-prepared for the pandemic. He said a lack of clarity between federal leadership and public health officials hindered communications and response.

Also, Peters said, public communication efforts regarding COVID-19 were inconsistent and sometimes contradictory, and critical federal public health guidance was often delayed.

Peters said learning from those mistakes is important so the government is better prepared for another health emergency in the future.

“What this shows us is that we weren’t prepared to respond as fast as we needed to, and it found if we don’t respond quickly, people die,” Peters said. “There will be another (emergency) — maybe in 100 years, maybe sooner — and it would be a tragedy if we aren’t better prepared the next time.”

The investigation found the government failed to quickly develop and scale up COVID-19 testing capabilities, collect needed COVID-19 data, and, as a result, surveillance systems failed to accurately capture the extent of the evolving crisis. That made it nearly impossible to track the spread of COVID-19 and mount an effective and equitable response, the report says.

The report recommends actions that Congress and the federal government can take to support sustained funding for public health infrastructure, clarify agency roles in pandemic preparedness and response, and improve health data collection.

Peters said the medical supply chain lacked sufficient domestic manufacturing capacity for critical medical products and the country found itself dependent on other nations — particularly China — to provide needed materials such as masks, gowns, gloves, and everyday hospital supplies.

“We need to have less dependency on China, and we need to bring manufacturing of those products back to the United States,” he said.

Peters said the report outlined poor and contradictory public health guidance from the federal government at the onset of the pandemic, which caused confusion among the public about how they should protect themselves from the virus. He said the government relayed conflicting guidance on the effectiveness of face masks and failed to convey the limitations of what it knew and didn’t know at the time.

He said President Donald Trump’s administration downplayed the threat and, at one point, took away the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ability to communicate with the public, all of which created ripple effects as the pandemic continued in the following months.

“Public outreach was sidelined by the prior administration, and, many times, there wasn’t a clear message going out,” he said.

Although the COVID-19 vaccine wasn’t approved for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration until December 2020, Peters said he considers its development a success. He said work on the drug was ongoing for many years and the work done previously allowed scientists to quickly wrap up their work and get the vaccine into production and into the arms of people.

Still, Peters said, the messaging wasn’t the best because political lines were drawn about the safety and effectiveness of the new drug.

“Politics got in the way, and that was unfortunate,” he said.

Today, as new variants of COVID-19 are discovered, the vaccine and follow-up booster shots provide less protection, a recent study shows.

According to scientists with Columbia University and the University of Michigan, the omicron subvariants BQ.1, BQ.1.1, XBB and XBB.1 have become the most immune-evasive variants of the coronavirus.

That may undermine the effectiveness of new boosters and antibody treatments and could lead to a surge of breakthrough infections. In the study, published Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal Cell, scientists wrote that the subvariants are “barely susceptible to neutralization.”

The study also found that people who were vaccinated and had breakthrough infections with prior omicron variants had a weaker immune response against the subvariants, CNBC reported.

The study says people who have taken the vaccine and associated booster shots are still less likely to be hospitalized than those who aren’t vaccinated.

According to data from the CDC, the country is in the midst of a winter surge of COVID-19 infections. The CDC says the country averaged about 65,569 new cases each day in the week ending Dec. 7, a 49.6% surge from the previous week.

In Northeast Michigan, in the week ending Dec. 12, public health officials reported 23 confirmed infections and three deaths.

On Thursday, the federal government announced it will resume sending out free COVID-19 tests to households that request them. People who wish to have the tests sent to them can order them at COVIDTests.gov.

Steve Schulwitz can be reached at 989-358-5689 at sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ss_alpenanews.com.


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