The U.S. government was slow to understand how much coronavirus was spreading from Europe, which helped drive the acceleration of outbreaks across the nation, a top health official said Friday.
Limited testing and delayed travel alerts for areas outside China contributed to the jump in U.S. cases starting in late February, said Dr. Anne Schuchat, the No. 2 official at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We clearly didn’t recognize the full importations that were happening,” Schuchat told The Associated Press.
The coronavirus was first reported late last year in China, the initial epicenter of the global pandemic. But the U.S. has since become the hardest-hit nation, with about a third of the world’s reported cases and more than a quarter of the deaths.
The CDC on Friday published an article, authored by Schuchat, that looked back on the U.S. response, recapping some of the major decisions and events of the last few months.
It suggests the nation’s top public health agency missed opportunities to slow the spread. Some public health experts saw it as important assessment by one of the nation’s most respected public health doctors.
The CDC is responsible for the recognition, tracking and prevention of just such a disease. But the agency has had a low profile during this pandemic, with White House officials controlling communications and leading most press briefings.
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“The degree to which CDC’s public presence has been so diminished … is one of the most striking and frankly puzzling aspects of the federal government’s response,” said Jason Schwartz, assistant professor of health policy at the Yale School of Public Health.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly celebrated a federal decision, announced on Jan. 31, to stop entry into the U.S. of any foreign nationals who had traveled to China in the previous 14 days. That took effect Feb. 2. China had imposed its own travel restrictions earlier, and travel out of its outbreak areas did indeed drop dramatically.
But in her article, Schuchat noted that nearly 2 million travelers arrived in the U.S. from Italy and other European countries during February. The U.S. government didn’t block travel from there until March 11.
“The extensive travel from Europe, once Europe was having outbreaks, really accelerated our importations and the rapid spread,” she told the AP.