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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

OPINION:

One year into office, by nearly any measure, the Biden administration’s COVID-19 response strategy has been a failure. 

For the team that pledged to “shut down the virus” in its first 100 days, the numbers are grim: Cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 under this administration in its first year far exceeded those generated during the year in which the Trump administration grappled with it. This, when the Biden folks had the benefit of the Trump vaccines and therapeutics developed under Operation Warp Speed and much greater knowledge about the characteristics of the virus, how it impacted individuals in various demographic and health status categories, how it spread and how Americans would respond to a variety of mandates, economic dislocations and messages.


But the impact of the Biden strategy goes beyond increases in cases and deaths to include other public health externalities closely correlated with an excessive response to COVID-19: record drug overdose deaths, increases in teen suicides, stunted primary and secondary school education and advances in disease severity resulting from deferred care. Then, there is fiscal health. The Biden team issued $1.9 trillion more in debt in March 2021 with the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act to combat COVID-19. Yet, nine months later, we have not even produced enough $5 antigen tests to satisfy the basic demands of the American people.

At the heart of these failures is a toxic combination of hubris, myopia and government inertia.

First, hubris. In November and December of 2020, as part of the formal transition of administrations, the Department of Health and Human Services set up scores of cubicles and conference rooms at our headquarters building to host the incoming members of the new administration’s COVID-19 task force. This is the same building in which Operation Warp Speed and most of the COVID-19 response activities of the Trump Administration were housed. No one from the Biden team ever showed up. Its members were satisfied with conducting videoconference meetings yet never once walked the hallways and spoke directly to the majority of the frontline career officials leading the response. Moreover, they never even interviewed then HHS Secretary Alex Azar, the person who at the time knew the most about the state of government’s COVID-19 response.

In early January of 2021, they dismissed the chief scientific officer of Operation Warp Speed, Dr. Moncef Slaoui, one of the most successful private-sector pharmaceutical scientists of our generation. They replaced him with a former government official, Dr. David Kessler, possessing little direct knowledge of, or experience within, the pharmaceutical industry. Only a sense of overweening confidence can explain these actions.

Second, myopia. The Biden strategy has been singularly focused on vaccine administration at the expense of further developing therapeutics and diagnostics. During Operation Warp Speed, when we briefed former President Donald Trump every 3-4 weeks, one of his first questions was, “How are we doing on therapeutics?” He knew intuitively that even at the extraordinary level of 95% effectiveness, the vaccines would not be perfect, and Americans would want to know they could be healed if they got sick. Simultaneously, Dr. Francis Collins and ADM Brett Giroir launched multi-billion-dollar programs to advance innovation and scale the production of leading-edge COVID-19 diagnostics.

The Biden team’s narrowly focused strategy also lacks sufficient recognition of the destructive public health impact of bans, mandates and shutdowns leading to isolation, bankruptcies, deferred care, stress, and despair. As early as the summer of 2020, Mr. Trump, Dr. Scott Atlas and Mr. Azar warned of the broader public health outcomes from too draconian a response to COVID-19 and modified our strategy accordingly. These were not expressions of surrender, rather practical and prescient expressions of humility.

Third, inertia. The Biden folks articulated a vaccination-centric strategy 12 months ago that has not budged since. Our strategy evolved four times in the first seven months from containment to mitigation, to absorbing surges, to creating more balance among competing public health risks.

In a rapidly evolving environment requiring learning and adaptation, vital knowledge resides not in the centralized institutions of the federal government but in hospital intensive care units, small businesses, the experiences of essential workers and family units. We regularly convened meetings with hospital executives, nursing home operators and others for the purpose of learning and adapting, not to impose mandates and bans. Dr. Birx visited over 40 states in 90 days seeking “ground truth.” This information permitted us to avoid strategic inertia.

The failed Biden strategy has been a function of hubris, myopia and inertia when the demands of COVID-19 required humility, a balanced perspective on risks and strategic dexterity. The American people understand this and have moved on. As Lee Iacocca once famously commented, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” The Biden administration has already ceded leadership to the American people. It should now at least consider following or, better yet, getting out of the way.

• Paul Mango was the deputy chief of staff for Policy at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from 2019 to 2021, serving as former Secretary Alex Azar’s formal liaison to Operation Warp Speed, where he was involved in nearly all strategic, operational and financial aspects of the program, and facilitated its day-to-day activities among the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Defense, and the White House. His forthcoming book is “Warp Speed: Inside the Operation That Beat COVID, the Critics, and the Odds” (Republic Book Publishers, March 15, 2022).

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.


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