In a new interview with Yahoo Finance, former Obama official Janet Napolitano sharply criticized President Donald Trump’s arguably uneven response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“One of the problems we've seen in this pandemic is the White House, and by the White House. I mean, really, the president has been all over the map,” Napolitano, former Department of Homeland Security Secretary, told Yahoo Finance on Wednesday.
Indeed, Trump appeared to ignore early warning signs that the new coronavirus could pose a serious threat in the U.S. After the first confirmed case in the U.S. was reported on Jan. 20, Trump’s economic adviser Peter Navarro warned his colleagues that this would be a devastating crisis, according to a memo that was just reported this week.
Trump proceeded to brush off the threat until March 13, when he declared COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, a national emergency. Now, the U.S. has over 450,000 confirmed cases and has lost 16 million jobs — 10% of the workforce — in a recent three-week period.
“First it was a little thing. Then it was a hoax and then it was a national emergency and then people are supposed to rush out and get prescriptions for chloroquine, which is a medication that hasn't been tested against COVID-19 but is used for other conditions,” said Napolitano, who’s currently president of the University of California.
“And the lack of coordination of the federal response, the management of the federal stockpile, the implementation of the Defense Production Act,” she added, referring to the law being invoked to produce desperately needed ventilators to treat patients with COVID-19.
Calling Trump’s direction during this time “slow and chaotic,” Napolitano pointed out that Americans are increasingly looking to their local elected officials, especially governors, for guidance.
“Clear, consistent, persistent messaging from the leadership is really what the country needs...empower people with knowledge and facts. That's the way to manage a crisis. And unfortunately, I would say that we really haven't seen that out of the president, but we have seen it out of the governors, most governors,” she added.
‘A jungle out there’
As the health crisis exists in clusters, the onus has been put on individual cities and states to move swiftly — whether it’s holding daily briefings, banning large gatherings, implementing shelter-in-place orders, and scrambling to find basic personal protective equipment to medical staff.
“We still have kind of a jungle out there... where states are competing against other states to get what they need and hospital systems are competing, which all has the effect of jacking up the price, by the way,” she said.
Napolitano, who played a central role in curbing the H1N1 flu outbreak of 2009, a few months after President Barack Obama took office, acknowledged that the coronavirus is an entirely different beast.
“The first case [of H1N1] in the United States was in April of 2009. By July, they had identified a vaccine, and it had been through testing by August, they were in mass manufacture. By October, we had a National Vaccine campaign underway. In contrast, COVID-19 is a new animal, it's a new type of virus,” she said.
“We were able to jump on testing very quickly [in 2009]. And then identify hotspots and focus, getting resources into those hotspots so that we could do an intensive community response as opposed to the situation we're in — our entire states and indeed, virtually the entire country is shut down. Now there's some differences between H1N1 and COVID-19. H1N1 was a form of flu. And you know the way flu goes there's always a different flu vaccine every year [since] flus evolve very quickly. And so they were able to make adjustments and arrive at a vaccine fairly quickly,” she added.
While potential vaccines and treatments for COVID-19 move toward human trials, the timeline remains nebulous.
“In a way, our scientists are having to start from scratch in order to develop a vaccine. And that's why you're hearing time estimates like a year to 18 months. I think those are realistic time estimates,” she said. “And I also think, by the way, that we will not really be through the COVID-19 pandemic period until we indeed have a vaccine.”
Melody Hahm is Yahoo Finance’s west coast correspondent, covering entrepreneurship, technology and culture. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.