The Trump administration recently requested $2.5 billion in emergency funds to prepare the U.S. for a possible widespread outbreak of coronavirus. Critics, though, are pointing out that money might not be necessary if the administration hadn’t spent the past two years largely dismantling government units that were designed to protect against pandemics.
The cuts started in 2018, as the White House focused on eliminating funding to Obama-era disease security programs. In March of that year, Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, whose job it was to lead the U.S. response in the event of a pandemic, abruptly left the administration and his global health security team was disbanded.
That same year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was forced to slash its efforts to prevent global disease outbreak by 80% as its funding for the program began to run out. The agency, at the time, opted to focus on 10 priority countries and scale back in others, including China.
Also cut was the Complex Crises Fund, a $30 million emergency response pool that was at the secretary of state’s disposal to deploy disease experts and others in the event of a crisis. (The fund was created by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.)
Overall in 2018, Trump called for $15 billion in reduced health spending that had previously been approved, as he looked at increasing budget deficits, cutting the global disease-fighting budgets of the CDC, National Security Council (NSC), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and Health and Human Services (HHS) in the process.
The effects of those cuts are being felt today. While the CDC announced plans to test people with flu-like symptoms for COVID-19, those have been delayed and only three of the country’s 100 public-health labs have been able to test for coronavirus. The administration’s request for additional funding came roughly two weeks after officials said HHS was almost out of funding for its response to the virus.
The cuts could be especially problematic as COVID-19 continues to spread. Health officials are now warning the U.S. is unlikely to be spared, even though cases are minimal here so far.
“It’s not so much of a question of if this will happen in this country any more but a question of when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said during a press call Tuesday.
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