Tommy Thompson: The new coronavirus has no partisan preference

Let’s get behind our leaders working to address the crisis and not be a nation of second-guessers

From left, Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, Dr. Anthony Fauci,  director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Vice President Mike Pence leave a congressional briefing in the Capitol Visitor Center on March 4.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
From left, Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Vice President Mike Pence leave a congressional briefing in the Capitol Visitor Center on March 4. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 13, 2020 at 6:30am

As the country faces the threat created by the novel coronavirus, rather than let the crisis tear us apart, we have the opportunity as a country to come together. Viruses exhibit no partisan preference, and our best defense against COVID-19 is a solid public health approach. As with any emerging infectious disease threat, there are more questions than answers, and we do not know how widespread the virus will be. 

Having managed a number of public health challenges while I was Health and Human Services secretary, including the public health response to 9/11, the anthrax attacks, an influenza vaccine shortage and the coronavirus known as SARS, I know the challenges of managing an evolving public health crisis. In my view, working with public health experts is the key to solving the problem.

At the advice of the public health professionals at the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Trump administration made important decisions early on that have given the country critical time to prepare for the next wave of the disease. On Jan. 17, the government issued a screening protocol to evaluate individuals at high-risk of COVID-19 infection, and that was quickly expanded to screen more than 47,000 people.

At President Donald Trump’s direction, HHS Secretary Alex Azar has led a multi-department task force to address the threat, and declared a public health emergency for the entire country on Jan. 31 — less than a month after initial surveillance reports from Wuhan in China. On that same day, the president issued an order to shut down the border and incoming flights from the epicenter of the virus in China. These steps had the benefit of releasing key resources and enforcing a containment strategy while raising awareness.

Since that time, President Trump has appointed Vice President Mike Pence to lead and coordinate the government-wide response. While some have been critical of this step, arguing that it adds a dimension of politics into the response, it is the reverse.  It shows clear leadership and establishes that the White House is taking ownership of the response, managing the complex and cross-functional effort across the whole government and ensuring the integration of assets. In addition to the vice president, the White House has shown the highest level of engagement, including strong leadership by domestic policy chief Joe Grogan, while relying on experts, including the great public health leader, Dr. Debbie Birx, who is coordinating the effort.

At my former department, Secretary Azar and his public health team have taken critical steps to address the emerging challenge. The FDA has paved a clear path for expediting the development of new treatments and preventives for the virus. The NIH, which is part of HHS, has launched clinical trials of anti-virals and begun work on a new vaccine. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has issued critical guidance to nursing homes and hospitals, and is working to ensure reimbursement for COVID-19-related activities. After initial challenges, which are expected in any emergency, the CDC has stepped up and is quickly increasing diagnostic capabilities.

Secretary Azar and his incredible public health team have stepped up in a very challenging environment.

Public health leaders such as Dr. Tony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease at the NIH, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, and Surgeon General Jerome Adams all have significant experience with previous emerging infectious disease threats and have provided sober information on the threat and practical suggestions each American can follow to protect against the virus.

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Dr. Stephen Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, is a strong manager who has taken important steps already to spur development of antivirals and vaccines. 

CMS head Seema Verma is a clear communicator and has done incredibly important work as the critical link with our nation’s hospitals, nursing homes and providers, who are on the front line in battling this threat.

Together, these leaders and the cadre of professional career public servants across the federal government are working together to use their subject-matter expertise and resources to ensure and protect the heath of their fellow Americans.

With each pandemic threat from a novel virus, the depth of knowledge increases and is further embodied within our current leadership. Rather than casting aspersions on those who are in the arena, let’s be supportive of the great team working to address this crisis and see how we as a country can come together, rather than be a nation divided by second-guessers and those looking for political advantage.

Tommy G. Thompson served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from 2001 to 2005. A Republican, he previously served as governor of Wisconsin from 1987 to 2001.