U.S. Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, released a new report detailing the findings of his two-year investigation into the federal government’s initial response to COVID-19 from December 2019 through March 2020, as the virus quickly spread throughout the country.
The report identifies significant failures in the federal government’s initial response to the pandemic in those early, yet critical, months and offers recommendations for Congress and the federal government to bolster our preparedness and response for future public health crises. As a part of the investigation, the Committee interviewed dozens of current and former senior officials responsible for coordinating the nation’s response to COVID-19.
“The COVID-19 pandemic was an unprecedented public health crisis. However, the loss of life, suffering, and economic devastation were not inevitable. My investigation found that long term systemic failures left our nation unprepared to grapple with public health threats, and when the virus began to spread throughout the country – the federal government failed to act quickly and formulate a comprehensive response,” said Senator Peters. “These compounding failures unfortunately cost lives and livelihoods in Michigan and across the nation.”
Peters continued: “The COVID-19 pandemic was not the first public health crisis our nation has faced – nor will it be the last. Implementing the recommendations in this report will help ensure our nation can prevent the next crisis, whatever it may be, from reaching this magnitude.”
The report’s key findings include:
- The U.S. failed to sufficiently invest in public health preparedness across multiple Administrations;
- Statutory authorities and policy directives that dictate federal leadership during public health emergencies overlap and lack clarity;
- The U.S. medical supply chain lacks sufficient domestic manufacturing capacity for critical medical products;
- U.S. public health surveillance systems for monitoring and detecting emerging infectious diseases are inadequate, antiquated, and fragmented; and
- Communications about COVID-19 were inconsistent and sometimes contradictory and critical federal public health guidance was often delayed.
The report makes key recommendations to ensure the lessons learned from this pandemic are effectively implemented, including:
- Invest in sustainable multi-year funding for public health emergency preparedness and response across all levels of government;
- Clarify agency roles in pandemic preparedness and response;
- Invest in sustainable domestic manufacturing capacity for critical medical products;
- Standardize health data collection to improve future public health responses and minimize burdens on providers; and
- Build infrastructure necessary for testing surge capacity and initiate advance contracts that can be rapidly executed during public health crises.
Peters’ investigation found that despite warnings, the U.S. was unprepared to address severe public health crises and the government chronically failed to invest in public health infrastructure for decades. The report also found that agencies responsible for responding to the pandemic often had overlapping responsibilities, which along with uncoordinated changes in leadership, significantly undermined the initial response to the pandemic at a time when the government needed to take quick and decisive action. The investigation also found that the U.S. failed to quickly develop and scale 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. This made it nearly impossible to track the spread of COVID-19 and mount an effective and equitable response to the pandemic, the report adds.
In a 2019 report, Peters previously raised concerns and identified recommendations to address the risks posed by America’s overreliance on foreign sources for key medical products. This investigation found that throughout January and early February 2020, the federal government received multiple warnings of personal protective equipment (PPE) supply concerns, but Peters said the federal government failed to take sufficient action to secure needed contracts and bolster the domestic supply of medical products needed to protect Americans from a severe and highly transmissible virus. As a result, when COVID-19 spread in communities across the nation, state and federal stockpiles were quickly depleted, and Americans were left vulnerable because of shortages of masks, gowns, gloves, and everyday hospital supplies – like needles, syringes, and ventilators. The report makes recommendations to provide greater visibility of foreign sources of medical supplies and strengthen domestic manufacturing to produce critical medical supplies in the United States.
Finally, the investigation found that poor and contradictory public health guidance from the federal government at the onset of the pandemic caused confusion among the public about how they should protect themselves from the virus. For instance, the federal government relayed conflicting guidance on the effectiveness of masks, failed to convey the limitations of what it knew and didn’t know at the time, and the Trump Administration downplayed the threat, at one point taking away CDC’s ability to communicate with the public, all of which created ripple effects as the pandemic continued in the following months.
Peters’ bipartisan legislation to strengthen efforts to encourage domestic production of PPE was signed into law. He also convened a hearing with supply chain, pharmaceutical, and medical experts on how the Trump Administration failed to anticipate shortages of critical drugs and medical supplies, and take actions to acquire needed supplies at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Peters convened an additional hearing with former officials and experts in public health and emergency management to examine the federal government’s preparation for and response to the COVID-19 pandemic.