When COVID-19 emerged in China at the end of last year—then spread to the United States in January—were there political leaders or public health officials who clearly understood what the virus was about to do to this country and how to most effectively counter it?
On Jan. 17, for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention held its first briefing on COVID-19. That same day, it had started screening people for symptoms if they flew in from Wuhan, China, and landed in San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York.
"Based on the information that CDC has today, we believe the current risk from this virus to the general public is low," Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said at the beginning of that briefing.
"For a family sitting around the dinner table tonight this is not something that they generally need to worry about," she said.
But the doctor hedged her bet.
"In closing, I do want to remind you that we're still in the early days of this investigation," she said.
"The situation could indeed change quickly," she said.
Four days later, on Jan. 21, the CDC held another briefing. Here it announced the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the United States — in a person who had recently returned from Wuhan.
"The confirmation that human-to-human spread with this virus is occurring in Asia certainly raises our level of concern about this virus, but we continue to believe the risk of this novel coronavirus to the American public at large remains low at this time," Messonnier said then.
Again, she hedged.
"I want to remind everyone that we are still in the early days of this investigation — both domestically and abroad," she said.
"We are aware that this situation could change quickly," she said. "Therefore, we at CDC are taking a cautious approach to this outbreak and are prepared to respond to any new developments."
On Jan. 27, the CDC held another briefing.
"We understand many people in the United States are worried about this virus and how it will affect Americans," said Messonnier. "Risk depends on exposure. Right now, we have a handful of patients with this new virus here in the United States. However, currently in the U.S., this virus is not spreading in the community. For that reason, we continue to believe that the immediate health risk from the new virus to the general American public is low currently."
On Jan. 29, the CDC held another briefing.
"At this time, we continue to believe that the immediate health risk from this new virus and the general American public is low," Messonnier said that day.
"We expect to see additional cases in the United States," she said. "We think there could be in travelers returning from Hubei Province, but we also think that it's likely we may have cases among close contacts of patients who have returned, that would be human-to-human transmission. So, we're expecting that. But right now, there is no sign in the United States that we have broader community transmission, and that's why people who are not in one of those groups, either traveling themselves or having close contact with a confirmed case, we don't think those Americans need to be especially concerned, because we judge the risk in the general American public to be low."
Two days after that, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar held a press conference with Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
"I want to emphasize that this is a serious health situation in China, but I want to emphasize that the risk to the American public currently is low," said Redfield. "Our goal is do all we can do to keep it that way."
"The issue now with this is that there's a lot of unknowns," Fauci said.
"We still have a low risk to the American public, but we want to keep it at a low risk," said Fauci. "And because there are so many unknowns here, we're going to take the action that the secretary will describe, in a temporary way, to make sure we mitigate, as best as we possibly can, this risk."
Azar then announced he was declaring a public health emergency and that President Donald Trump was issuing an order directing that U.S. citizens who had been in Hubei Province would be subjected to a 14-day quarantine and that foreign nationals who had traveled in China within the previous 14 days would be barred entry to the United States.
Meanwhile, Speaker Nancy Pelosi's House of Representatives took no action to combat COVID-19 until it passed an $8.3-billion spending bill almost five weeks later — on March 4.
By May 12, the CDC was reporting there had been 1,342,594 COVID-19 cases in the United States and 80,820 Americans had died from the disease.
There were also 22.4 million Americans who lost their jobs in April — and, in May, much of the nation remains shut down.
Americans are now paying two costs: one imposed by the virus itself, another by the decisions of politicians and public health officials trying to stop the virus.
Hopefully, they have a better idea now of what is happening and how best to deal with it than they did when the pandemic started.
But when it is over, America needs to conduct a careful postmortem. It should aim at understanding exactly how this virus affected the health of our nation and how effectively — or ineffectively — our leaders responded to it.
(Terence P. Jeffrey is the editor in chief of CNSNews.com.)