What has been obvious from the start is that the US has had no national plan for dealing with the pandemic, leaving the whole thing up to a patchwork system of actions by local authorities. The basic elements of safety protocols, widespread testing, and contact tracing were not widely promoted and implemented. Katherine Eban, writing in Vanity Fair, explains what happened and says that part of the blame lies with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner who was assigned the task of creating and implementing a policy.
Though Kushner’s outsized role has been widely reported, the procurement of Chinese-made test kits is being disclosed here for the first time. So is an even more extraordinary effort that Kushner oversaw: a secret project to devise a comprehensive plan that would have massively ramped up and coordinated testing for COVID-19 at the federal level.
Six months into the pandemic, the United States continues to suffer the worst outbreak of COVID-19 in the developed world. Considerable blame belongs to a federal response that offloaded responsibility for the crucial task of testing to the states. The irony is that, after assembling the team that came up with an aggressive and ambitious national testing plan, Kushner then appears to have decided, for reasons that remain murky, to scrap its proposal. Today, as governors and mayors scramble to stamp out epidemics plaguing their populations, philanthropists at the Rockefeller Foundation are working to fill the void and organize enough testing to bring the nationwide epidemic under control.
The solutions it proposed weren’t rocket science—or even comparable to the dauntingly complex undertaking of developing a new vaccine.
But no nationally coordinated testing strategy was ever announced. The plan, according to the participant, “just went poof into thin air.”
Kushner bypassed public health experts and assembled people from the business world and (naturally, this being a Trump family operation) cronies.
Countries that have successfully contained their outbreaks have empowered scientists to lead the response. But when Jared Kushner set out in March to solve the diagnostic-testing crisis, his efforts began not with public health experts but with bankers and billionaires. They saw themselves as the “A-team of people who get shit done,” as one participant proclaimed in a March Politico article.
Kushner’s brain trust included Adam Boehler, his summer college roommate who now serves as chief executive officer of the newly created U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, a government development bank that makes loans overseas. Other group members included Nat Turner, the cofounder and CEO of Flatiron Health, which works to improve cancer treatment and research.
A Morgan Stanley banker with no notable health care experience, Jason Yeung took a leave of absence to join the task force. Along the way, the group reached out for advice to billionaires, such as Silicon Valley investor Marc Andreessen.
They did come up with a plan by the end of April. It was not great and very late but at least it was something.
The plan called for the federal government to coordinate distribution of test kits, so they could be surged to heavily affected areas, and oversee a national contact-tracing infrastructure. It also proposed lifting contract restrictions on where doctors and hospitals send tests, allowing any laboratory with capacity to test any sample. It proposed a massive scale-up of antibody testing to facilitate a return to work. It called for mandating that all COVID-19 test results from any kind of testing, taken anywhere, be reported to a national repository as well as to state and local health departments.
And it proposed establishing “a national Sentinel Surveillance System” with “real-time intelligence capabilities to understand leading indicators where hot spots are arising and where the risks are high vs. where people can get back to work.”
So why was even this plan never implemented but instead “went poof into thin air”?
But the effort ran headlong into shifting sentiment at the White House. Trusting his vaunted political instincts, President Trump had been downplaying concerns about the virus and spreading misinformation about it—efforts that were soon amplified by Republican elected officials and right-wing media figures. Worried about the stock market and his reelection prospects, Trump also feared that more testing would only lead to higher case counts and more bad publicity.
Most troubling of all, perhaps, was a sentiment the expert said a member of Kushner’s team expressed: that because the virus had hit blue states hardest, a national plan was unnecessary and would not make sense politically. “The political folks believed that because it was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy,” said the expert.
That logic may have swayed Kushner. “It was very clear that Jared was ultimately the decision maker as to what [plan] was going to come out,” the expert said
Got that? At that time, since the pandemic was hitting Democratic dominated states hardest, they thought it would be politically advantageous to put the onus for action on the states and let them be blamed. There was wide suspicion at that time that this was Trump’s plan, that he saw the poor pandemic response as a way to attack Democratic-led states and their leaders because that is how Trump thinks, but Eban fleshes that out more thoroughly
Under the plan released that day, the federal government would act as a facilitator to help increase needed supplies and rapidly approve new versions of diagnostic-testing kits. But the bulk of the effort to operate testing sites and find available labs fell to the states.
It is obvious to experts that 50 individual states cannot effectively deploy testing resources amid vast regulatory, financial, and supply-chain obstacles. The diagnostic-testing industry is a “loosely constructed web,” said Dr. Pellini of Section 32, “and COVID-19 is a stage five hurricane.”
Dr. Lawler likened the nation’s balkanized testing infrastructure to the “early 20th century, when each city had its own electrical grid and they weren’t connected.” If one area lost power, “you couldn’t support it by diverting power from another grid.”
Eban writes that because of the complete abandonment by the Trump administration of carrying out this needed task, the private Rockefeller Foundation and its head Dr. Rajiv Shah have tried to step into the breach and create a national plan.
Estimating the cost at $100 billion, it proposed an all-hands-on-deck approach that would unite federal, state, and local governments; academic institutions; and the private and nonprofit sectors. Together, they would rapidly optimize laboratory capacity, create an emergency supply chain, build a 300,000-strong contact-tracing health corps, and create a real-time public data platform to guide the response and prevent reemergence.
The Rockefeller plan sought to do exactly what the federal government had chosen not to: create a national infrastructure in a record-short period of time. “Raj doesn’t do non-huge things,” said Andrew Sweet, the Rockefeller Foundation’s managing director for COVID-19 response and recovery. In a discussion with coalition members, Dr. Anthony Fauci called the Rockefeller plan “music to my ears.”
Through a testing-solutions group, the foundation is collaborating with city, state, and other testing programs, including those on Native American reservations, and helping to bolster them.
“They came on board and turbocharged us,” said Ann Lee, CEO of the humanitarian organization CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort), cofounded by Lee and the actor Sean Penn. CORE now operates 44 testing sites throughout the U.S., including Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and mobile units within the Navajo Nation, which also offer food and essential supplies.
It may seem impossible for anyone but the federal government to scale up diagnostic testing one hundred-fold through a painstaking and piecemeal approach. But in private conversations, dispirited members of the White House task force urged members of the Rockefeller coalition to persist in their efforts. “Despite what we might be hearing, there is nothing being done in the administration on testing,” one of them was told on a phone call.
Why does Jared Kushner still have a job in government? He has proven himself to be utterly incapable of carrying out any of all the other assignments to which he has been entrusted, such as bringing peace to the Middle East, government reform, opioid crisis management, and criminal justice reform, as well as serving as the liaison to Mexico, China, and the Muslim community. The only talent he has shown is in being a slumlord.
Kushner is a poster child for how inherited wealth and family and political connections insulate you from any consequences for your failures.