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'We will have more Americans die': Ex-Obama official criticizes slow response to coronavirus

The Trump administration failed to adequately respond to the coronavirus outbreak in its earliest days, resulting in lackluster federal efforts that will cause unnecessary loss of life and economic pain, former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who served in the Obama administration, told Yahoo Finance on Monday.

“We will have more Americans die than would have needed to be the case,” she says. “Our economy will take a harder hit and will take longer to recover than would have been the case had we been optimally prepared.”

She especially criticized the lack of adequate protective gear for health care workers and ventilators for overwhelmed hospitals, calling the insufficient supply a “profound failing.”

The slow federal response to the outbreak resulted in a lack of vital testing for the disease, added Rice, who recently released a memoir called “Tough Love.”

“We had early warning — we didn't take advantage of that time to prepare optimally,” she adds. “Though testing is ramped up, of course, we don't have enough, there are plenty of people who still can't get tests.”

Credit: David Foster/Yahoo Finance

Over a crucial monthlong period — from late January to early March — after the first confirmed case in the U.S., the federal government failed to institute widespread testing for the disease, The New York Times reported over the weekend. Bureaucratic obstacles, technical shortcomings, and a dearth of leadership caused the delay, according to the article, which drew on conversations with over 50 public health officials, administration officials, and others.

‘A 69-page playbook’

In contrast with the Trump administration, the Obama administration carefully prepared for possible global health crises, deploying early and effective containment measures in response to the outbreak of the H1N1 flu in 2009 and of Ebola in 2014, Rice said.

Speaking with Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer on Monday, Rice recounted discussions about pandemic threats held between departing Obama administration officials and incoming members of the Trump administration.

“At the end of the Obama administration, we left our colleagues in the Trump, the incoming Trump administration with a 69-page playbook,” she says. “We ran an exercise with the entire incoming Cabinet, and I certainly briefed them ... on what we had done and why to prepare for pandemics.”

In response to criticism about the early response to the outbreak, Trump has pointed to travel restrictions he placed in late January on foreigners who had recently visited China.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases, as of Tuesday morning, rose to more than 164,000 in the U.S., as the worldwide total surpassed 800,000, according to Johns Hopkins University. The number of people diagnosed with the disease in the U.S. has grown dramatically since March 1, when there were roughly 100 confirmed cases.

WASHINGTON, DC, UNITED STATES - 2019/05/22: Ambassador Susan Rice, former U.S. National Security Adviser and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, speaking at The Center for American Progress CAP 2019 Ideas Conference. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Under the Obama administration, Rice established in 2015 the office of Global Health Security and Biodefense at the National Security Council, which sought to prevent and contain global health crises. In 2018, the Trump administration disbanded the office and its senior director, Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, departed the administration.

Rice served as the National Security Advisor under president Barack Obama for three and a half years, giving intelligence briefings to the president each morning; and before that, she spent Obama’s first term as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

Earlier in her career, Rice served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in Bill Clinton’s administration, and spent several years as a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"Tough Love" by Susan Rice

In an op-ed for the New York Times earlier this month, Rice similarly critcized the Trump administration’s response but said there was still time to avoid the worst case scenario.

The emergence of a pandemic threat did not come as a surprise, she told Yahoo Finance.

“We have known for decades that a pandemic of global magnitude was imminent,” she says. “In fact, we were overdue, based on how frequently these things have happened in recent centuries.”

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