Archived data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal that the US government dramatically misunderstood what was happening in America as the outbreak began.
On the last day of February, the CDC reported that 15 Americans had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
In the past week, as the country’s testing capacity has increased, officials have discovered more cases. Today, more than 17,000 people have tested positive.
That may sound like a lot. But experts believe that the United States still isn’t testing enough people to detect the outbreak’s true spread.
The virologist Trevor Bedford has found evidence that the coronavirus began spreading in the United States in January.
It has already infected approximately 87,000 Americans, he says.
Here’s what his estimate of the pandemic’s arrival in America looks like—compared with how many people we thought were sick at the time:
The United States is a country soon to be overrun with sick people. As the positive tests for the new coronavirus have ticked upward, so, inevitably, will the deaths.
A study published last week, Imperial College London predicted that unless aggressive action is taken, the coronavirus could kill 2.2 million Americans in the coming months.
A day after that study was published, its lead researcher developed a dry cough and fever. He had COVID-19.
When Wuhan began burning with infections in December, the U.S. government took only illogical, inadequate actions to stop the virus’s spread: It banned foreigners from entering from China, but inconsistently monitored Americans returning from the country.
COVID-19 is an American catastrophe, a slow-motion disaster only now coming into view.
When its true proportions have been measured, it will make the early government response look even more outrageous than it already seems. What’s happening here, in this country, was avoidable. Nearly every flaw in America’s response to the virus has one source: America did not test enough people for COVID-19.
Testing should have told doctors how to triage patients and hospitals when to prepare their wards. It should have allowed governors to gauge the severity of a local outbreak and informed federal officials as they allocated scarce masks and ventilators.
Testing should have answered the all-important question in any pandemic: How many people are sick right now? Had the nation known that, the systems that were put into place over years of pandemic planning could have powered on, protecting millions of Americans and containing the illness.
Instead, the CDC botched its own test development. It sent testing kits to state public-health labs with a nonfunctioning ingredient. And by then, the virus was already spreading. It was already spreading as the Food and Drug Administration held up independent labs that had made their own tests.
It was spreading as samples piled up, as the world’s top virology researchers pleaded to be permitted to test them and as the FDA denied their requests.
The virus was spreading as a delay in test kits became a national shortage. When community transmission in the United States was discovered, and states and hospitals lacked the supplies to diagnose even a dangerously ill patient, it was spreading. When a week passed, and the market began to collapse, and the country had barely tested 1,000 people, it was still spreading.
Every six days that the country did not test, every six days that it did not act, the number of infected Americans doubled.
“The way no one expected how this response would fail in the U.S. is the testing,” Nahid Bhadelia, the medical director of the Special Pathogen Unit at Boston University School of Medicine, told us.
She is an expert in infectious diseases and pandemics, and oversees the medical-response program at one of the few labs in the country permitted to handle the pathogens that cause Ebola, anthrax, and the bubonic plague.
“If you don’t know where the disease is early in the epidemic, you have no hope of containing it,” Bhadelia said. “Even now, [testing is] that Achilles’ heel; it’s the crack that is making its way throughout our entire response.”
Without testing, there was only one way to know the severity of the outbreak: counting the dead.
On February 29, Washington State confirmed that a man who had been at the Life Care Center outside Seattle had died.
The death came at the end of a month that was America’s last chance at containing COVID-19. But it was too late. February had been lost.
On the last day of January, Trevor Bedford, a scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in Seattle, hit Publish on a 484-word blog post that should have shaken the nation.
Bedford is one of the country’s experts on the evolution and infectiousness of viruses. Virus genomes are like tree rings: They provide clues to where a virus came from and how many times it’s been passed from person to person.
With the outbreak raging in Wuhan, Bedford had been studying the genetic sequences of the new coronavirus that Chinese researchers had posted.
By January 11, six were in the record, which allowed him to reconstruct the relationships between the individual strains.
Though the World Health Organization insisted that this new coronavirus had “limited human-to-human transmission,” the genomes told Bedford otherwise.
Whatever this virus was, he suspected it could spread easily among strangers, like the common cold or the flu.