Ebola czar talks COVID-19; Says new virus more difficult to manage

Among the guests for U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela’s telephone town hall on July 15 was Ron Klain, President Barack Obama’s Ebola czar and chief of staff for former vice presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore.

Klain discussed the United States’ response to the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa, how it differs from the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and what has to happen for the economy to return to some semblance of normalcy.

“ Five years ago when we first got word that Ebola was spreading in Africa and could come to the U.S., Obama put together a comprehensive government response to both fight the disease overseas and get the U.S. ready for the cases we knew we would see,” he said. “That response included using all the tools and powers that he had to protect the American people. It included sending troops for example to West Africa to help organize the response.”

Here at home, the effort involved preparing hundreds of hospitals for Ebola patients, ramping up testing capacity and getting adequate supplies of personal protective equipment into the hands of health professionals and others who would need it should an outbreak occur, Klain said.

“ It took a lot of courage and heroism by people on the ground in West Africa to beat the disease, but the U.S. played a critical role in that, and the federal government played a critical role in helping to deal with the consequences of potential cases in America, to protect our country from those cases and to provide treatment and response to those cases,” he said. “What’s happening with COVID is very different.”

Klain said the virus currently raging through Texas, Florida, California and other hot spots around the nation is “much more comprehensive” and difficult to manage than Ebola.

“ It spread more easily,” he said. “It came into our country from more places. It’s obviously raged out of control in America. But even though it’s a more difficult challenge, still I think it’s right to expect that our federal government do better than it has. … Let’s start with the fact that this virus came from overseas, and so the responsibility to protect the American people lies with the federal government. It shouldn’t be that your health care systems in South Texas are on their own. It shouldn’t be that they have to figure this out for themselves. … They deserve a national response.”

Because the county still lacks a national strategy for COVID-19 testing, contact tracing or getting PPE to the country’s front-line workers, the virus is gaining ground, Klain said.

“ It didn’t have to happen,” he said. “Epidemics are natural. They can’t be avoided, but they can be dealt with and responded to.”

Klain acknowledged that “everyone wants to get back to work” but said there’s no coordinated strategy for doing it safely, even though Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, prepared a reopening plan back in April.

“ The day after Dr. Fauci laid out that plan President Trump basically said ignore the plan, and governors ignored the plan, and people opened too soon, and they opened too aggressively,” Klain said. “I feel a lot of sympathy for these small-business people who are trying to open up, and most of them just want to do the right thing, but they need guidance on what kind of protections they need, and they need help to pay for those protections too.”

Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez was among the listeners who called in to the town hall, which attracted nearly 10,000 listeners according to Vela’s office. Mendez told Klain that the city had seen 428 more cases of the virus in the two previous two days and asked whether it was possible to “balance the survival of small business and public safety” without resorting to another lock-down.

Klain said that while he’s not familiar with the city’s exact situation, the best way to help small businesses and the economy is for everyone to follow the advice of health professionals: wear facial coverings, wash your hands, practice social distancing and limit travel to essential business.

“ What I would say is there’s no strategy here that separates health from economics,” he said. “You can say we’re going to open up and roll back all restrictions, but if people get sick on the job, people get sick going into stores and restaurants, then the economy is going to fail anyway. Consumers are going to stay away. They only way to help small businesses is to beat the disease, because it does no good to open up and shut down. …

“ The healthcare strategy is the economic strategy. Success in the healthcare strategy is success in the economic strategy. We need to make sure that the federal government helps these small businesses that have been impacted, helps them reopen the right way and with expenses.”