Why Weren’t We Ready? Katie Couric Questions Our Pandemic Preparedness

On this episode of Next Question, Katie Couric is looking for answers about the coronavirus. First, she talks with Dr. Robert Femia, the Chair of Emergency Medicine at NYU Langone about the situation in New York hospitals, how their doctors and nurses are faring during their long hours, and how the medical supply shortage looks on the ground. Then she turns to Beth Cameron, former head of the National Security Directorate of Global Health Security and Biodefense, which was the pandemic response team put together by the Obama administration after the ebola outbreak in 2016. President Trump dissolved that office in 2018, and Beth lays out why the office is still so necessary, things that should be happening now, and what has been lacking in the United States’ response to this threat.

Dr. Femia fills us in on the situation in New York, which is essentially the epicenter of the virus in the United States, with more than 100,000 cases and nearly 2,000 deaths. He tells Katie that the major concern is the lack of supplies, from masks to gloves, and the strain on their employees, space, and equipment as the number of patients continue to grow. “We have the equipment now,” he reassures her, but “like everyone else, we’re worried that we’ll run out.” They’ve had to utilize conservation measures that are an “emotional drain” on the healthcare workers, who are in gloves, gowns, and masks all day – “basically a space suit,” he points out – for hours at a time, unable to change into fresh protective gear to cut down on waste. 

So why weren’t we prepared for this? Katie wants to know. Beth Cameron takes us back to 2014, when the ebola outbreak was threatening the United States. It became clear during that time that we needed an office specifically to handle pandemic logistics; while many senior officials were involved in handling the ebola epidemic, their response could have been more efficient if there was a single senior official with a team whose entire job was to coordinate medical supplies, states' and federal government's response, and streamline the information going to the public to cut down on confusion. The office, if it had not been dissolved, would have likely begun planning back in January, when the first coronavirus cases were starting to cause concern. A national strategic stockpile of medical supplies would have been a huge initiative, she says, keeping the states from “cannibalizing each other” for necessary equipment. And because we are one of the only countries with the logistics and manufacturing capability to coordinate a global response, our lack of leadership in this crisis is a disappointment worldwide. 

Get more information about the pandemic team, what they’d be responsible for, and how they’d accomplish it, as well as why we aren’t doing more testing, how long this quarantine may last, and much more on this episode of Next Question

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