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On February 1, Surgeon General Jerome Adams tweeted out a poem: “Roses are red/violets are blue/Risk is low for #coronavirus/But high for the flu … So get your #flushot.” Aside from urging Americans to get the vaccine extremely late in the season, the federal government’s leading public-health spokesperson downplayed the risk of COVID-19 at a crucial, early stage, when serious action from the White House could have limited the outbreak. By April 5 — by which point over 9,000 Americans had died from the virus — he had dropped the cute approach. On Fox News Sunday, Adams told host Chris Wallace that “this is going to be the hardest and the saddest week of most Americans’ lives,” adding that “this is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment, only it’s not going to be localized — it’s going to be happening all over the country.”
Together with another Sunday show comment, Adams caught the attention of state and local leaders, fueling the ongoing conflict over resources between the Trump administration and the states. On Meet the Press, the surgeon general said that states have to “be Rosie the Riveter” and must “do your part.” But judging from the federal government’s failure to properly supply — while directly underbidding states in contract negotiations — some governors weren’t encouraged by the surgeon general’s message.
While Governor John Bel Edwards responded on CNN’s State of the Union by informing the administration that Louisiana could exceed its ventilator capacity as early as Thursday, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee — who’s been lauded for his coronavirus response and his state’s dampened outbreak — called Adams’s comment “ludicrous.” He added, “The surgeon general referred to Pearl Harbor. Can you imagine if Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, ‘We’ll be right behind you, Connecticut. Good luck building those battleships’?”
In another interview on State of the Union, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker called Trump’s response incompetent, saying that he “does not understand the word ‘federal,’” referring to the president’s instructions for states to seek out their own resources. “If he were right, why would we ever need a Federal Emergency Management Agency?” Pritzker asked. “It’s because individual states can’t possibly do what the federal government can do. We don’t have a Defense Production Act. There’s no way that we could stockpile in anticipation of a pandemic that no one anticipated. And yet the federal government is responsible for doing precisely that.”
The surgeon general’s “do your part” message may actually be sound advice, considering some of the resources that the federal government has sent to the states. On Thursday, the emergency management director of Montgomery County in Alabama said that 5,000 out of 5,880 masks sent from the Strategic National Stockpile were rotted. They had expired a decade ago. According to the Associated Press, federal agencies failed to place bulk orders of N95 respirator masks, ventilators, and other critical resources until mid-March, well after it was clear that hospitals nationwide were desperately short of supplies to treat patients and protect medical providers. In New York, the president and his Jared-of-all-trades have neglected calls for more ventilators, claiming to know better than the governor’s estimate; already, over 4,000 people have died in the state. Though Trump boasted of the importance of the USNS Comfort, which was sent to New York, the hospital ship has been described as “a joke” by a top hospital executive, as it was almost entirely empty on Friday.
Not all states were created equal in the eyes of the current administration: While Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York haven’t received anywhere near the requested levels of aid, Florida quickly got all of what it asked for in its first two appeals. “The president knows Florida is so important for his reelection,” a White House official told the Washington Post. “He pays close attention to what Florida wants.”