The politics of COVID-19: Fact and fiction - part 2 - A tale of we do not know what we do not know
In part one a general model was described which applies both to introducing a new product into a market and to the recent history of the COVID-19 virus in the US. In both cases, survival of something new and novel depends upon a supportive response by the environment.1
The coronavirus has been initially successful in the US because it has had plenty of available human beings to infect. This might be great for a hypothetical International Coronavirus Corporation (were such to exist!), but hardly a good thing for the human species. This situation was due to our federal government’s poorly timed response to the emerging virus threat.
In part two we will look at how this all played out - as outlined in the timeline below. It shows what the US knew and how it came to know it, in real time, as the American public witnessed it. It shows how Dr Fauci followed the Lean Startup method of discovery about COVID-19 not only on US soil but also in relation to countries ahead of the US in responding to the pandemic.
First, who is Dr. Fauci? Anthony Stephen Fauci is an immunologist who has served under four presidents and as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) since 1984. Since January 2020, he has been one of the lead members of the Trump Administration’s White House Coronavirus Task Force addressing the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. The New Yorker and The New York Times described Fauci as one of the most trusted medical figures in the United States and a leading expert on infectious disease.
After an unfortunate delay, President Trump did what a good Lean Startup leader would do: he created a diverse team of experts tasked with tracking multiple aspects of the situation so that as it developed we could increase our control of the situation. In the Lean Startup model, this “cross-functional team” works to identify indicators to measure so that the market’s response to a new product can be monitored. This process encourages reworking of assumptions and flexible changing of direction when key information emerges about market response.
Working in tandem with the government, Dr. Fauci and his cross-functional team of medical experts began the process of helping the government understand COVID-19, working to create supportive guidelines and policies. The timeline shows what happened from the time we are introduced to Dr Fauci in late January to his warning about the need to use testing to contain the viral outbreak on March 24.
Event timeline - Late January to March 2020
2020-01-28: Dr Fauci announces that research for a new vaccine has started at the NIH and elsewhere, and that the US may be ready for a phase 1 clinical trial in the next three months. That does not mean it is ready for human consumption. “We are proceeding as if we will have to deploy a vaccine….[as] this becomes a bigger outbreak.”2
2020-01-31: Dr Fauci cautions against delaying elective treatment while hospitals are still able to provide it, as he’s concerned that soon they may not be able due to being overwhelmed by the pandemic.3
2020-02-25: Fauci states that the NIH (National Institutes of Health) has a pandemic plan in place, should it be needed to slow the spread of the virus. The plan includes closing schools, social distancing, and teleworking. He states the US needs to start thinking about those measures immediately even though the measures are not necessary just yet. He warns that the world is “teetering very, very close” to a pandemic.3
Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the C.D.C.’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, warns that the coronavirus is likely to spread in the United States, and that “this could be bad.”4
2020-02-29: News reports indicate there are 70 known cases in the U.S., and officials are reporting the first known death from the novel coronavirus on American soil. That day also sees the first few reports of “community spread,” or transmission of the disease from an unknown source.5
Fauci also states, on the NBC morning talk show “Today”, that at this moment in time “the risk is still low, but this could change….I’ve said that many times…that you’ve got to watch out because although the risk is low now, you don’t need to change anything you’re doing. When you start to see community spread, this could change and force you to become much more attentive to doing things that would protect you from spread.6
2020-03-02: Dr Fauci states that we are seeing severe outbreaks that are likely of pandemic proportion.3
2020-03-08: Dr. Fauci appears on at least two television news shows, warning that as the virus spreads - there are now more than 450 cases in at least 33 states - some stricter measures to isolate the infected might be considered. He also offers advice for older adults and those with underlying health conditions who are most at risk, saying they should avoid cruises, flights, and large gatherings of people.7
Dr. Thomas Frieden, former director of the C.D.C., speaking about Dr. Messonnier’s February 25 statement, states “Nancy Messonnier told it like it is, and she was 100 percent right, and they silenced the messenger” - referring to subsequent Trump administrative pressure that she revise and tone down her statement.3
2020-03-11: The World Health Organization declares the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, as there are now over 118,000 deaths in 110 countries.8
2020-03-12: Dr Fauci testifies that the administration is failing to support the public sector. 9
President Trump bans European travel.10
2020-03-13: President Trump declares a national emergency.11
2020-03-16: President Trump issues social distancing guidelines, and bans travel from Europe.12
2020-03-24: Dr. Fauci states that, apart from current US hot spots like New York, the rest of the country has a window of opportunity to contain the spread of the virus. Should containment fail, “…it’s tough to do anything but mitigation.”13
This process provided real time learning, giving experts the ability to adapt and pivot quickly. Using the cross-functional team approach, both the White House and medical expertise were in sync as to purpose and focus. Much was accomplished on many fronts, initially.
As Dr Fauci and Trump worked through the pandemic response process, the country’s way of life changed overnight. It plunged into the highest unemployment rate in history. Schools scrambled to try and finish their terms. Shortages of routine supplies became problematic. And national mental health became stressed as a lockdown that was only supposed to last a few weeks continued for several months.
Some businesses went out of operation, some others closed permanently, and still others pivoted in war-like fashion to help provide needed support and supplies. Citizens became glued to a barrage of social media and news focused on the pandemic. As the lockdown dragged on longer than anticipated, the need to find solutions became more urgent.
Except to shop for essentials, there was nowhere for US Citizens to go. For the first time in its history, the entire nation was a captive audience, with commentary on political, economic, social, and pandemic subjects occupying their time 24-hours a day. For someone like Trump, who uses public relations tools as his go-to method, having such a captive audience was a public relations dream come true. It was also a potential nightmare.
Tom Cloyd joined this series as co-author, starting with part 2. ^
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