White House

The Vaporware Presidency

President Trump speaks during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., March 29, 2020. (Al Drago/Reuters)
Donald Trump promised an ‘extraordinary public–private partnership’ that would beat the virus. It hasn’t materialized.

The status of the COVID-19 fight is this: In the win column, the American people have made tremendous sacrifices and succeeded in saving our hospital systems from the overwhelm that drove up fatality rates in Northern Italy and Wuhan, China; in the loss column, the federal government has failed to stand up a “test and trace” system that would warn the exposed and quarantine the sick, rather than quarantining everyone.

There’s a term in Silicon Valley for software that’s advertised before anyone can guarantee it will even exist. It’s called “vaporware.” Much of the federal government’s response to the crisis has been vaporware. We’ve gotten lots of advertising and an implicit promise of a world-class operation to fight the disease. But it doesn’t exist yet and it’s becoming clearer that the White House is spinning its wheels, looking for something — anything — to do other than solving the crisis at hand.

On Friday, March 13, after weeks of criticism of his disorganized response to the pandemic, Trump offered an answer: an “extraordinary public-private partnership.” China had controlled the virus with its massive, repressive state apparatus. South Korea and Singapore had done so with their more nimble states and publics conditioned for such a fight by the 2003 SARS outbreak. Trump’s new approach felt very American: Our marquee corporations would coordinate with the White House to beat the coronavirus. Stocks made a major rebound as Trump gathered a squadron of CEOs and announced the various initiatives on the White House lawn that Friday.

To hear the president tell it then, one expected to see the quick roll-out of drive-through testing centers in the parking lots of Walmart and Target retailers. CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid were said to be joining in, too. Google would launch an easy-to-use website helping people determine whether they should get a test, and directing them where to get one. This should have been the beginning of America’s test-and-trace scheme. But of course, it wasn’t.

By the end of April, Google’s health-care oriented company, Verily, had launched a pilot website covering only the Bay Area. As May begins, the promised testing centers exist in fewer than a dozen of the retailers Trump touted. CVS has rapid testing in five states, with plans to expand. Walgreens has drive-through testing operations in eight states. Both plan to expand their testing capacity, but they won’t be able to meet demand until well after many Americans emerge from lockdown — and it won’t make too big a difference so long as CDC guidelines on who can get tested remain relatively strict.

Moreover, testing is only part of the puzzle: It needs to be joined to a contact-tracing system. Even a primitive tracing operation would require tremendous manpower to conduct interviews and inform those exposed. A more advanced one, like those used in South Korea, would incorporate data generated by cell phones. But the federal government hasn’t indicated whether it would set up its own contact-tracing app (as Germany and the U.K. have done), or whether it would build on existing private efforts, such as the one at Columbia University and the one being jointly developed by Google and Apple, which has been criticized by some governments for protecting users’ privacy at the expense of insight into the spread of the disease.

Fitting all these moving parts together into a workable test-and-trace system is the kind of coordination problem that an energetic White House could solve. It’s certainly not a task beyond the capability of other Western governments. Germany, with a robust test-trace-and-isolate regime in place, has already re-opened, having avoided the type of outbreaks seen in Italy, Spain, and France. The United Kingdom has begun its pilot test-and-trace program in the Isle of Wight. Why is the U.S. so far behind?

Our nation has the capacity and resources to accomplish what has been accomplished in East Asia and what is beginning to be accomplished in Europe. All the pieces of the system needed to do so are being developed. They may begin to be assembled through private efforts alone. But assembling them with speed and with a straight line of communication to the public would require real leadership from a White House willing and able to solve coordination problems and blend the efforts of private actors, states, and municipalities into a coherent national plan.

Unfortunately, this is not that White House. In its outward-facing communications, the Trump administration has continued to tout the supposed effectiveness of its response. But up to now, the American people have faced down this pandemic on their own, while their president attempts to market his way out of another crisis.

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