The White House ignored a literal 'pandemic playbook' as it struggled to mount its coronavirus fight

Trump talks coronavirus
(Image credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

The White House has a color-coded, 69-page instruction manual for fighting pandemics, and had President Trump's staff used it, Politico reports, the "playbook would have been especially useful in helping to drive the administration's response to coronavirus, given that it was intended to guide urgent decisions and coordinate the all-of-government approach that Trump so far has struggled to muster." It would have advised action in mid-January to procure medical supplies, activate relevant agencies, and craft a unified communication strategy.

The National Security Council document, known as "the pandemic playbook," was compiled in 2016 to provide instructions for an expeditious, full-government response to a pandemic, drawn largely from lessons learned during the 2014-15 Ebola pandemic. The Trump administration was briefed on the playbook in 2017, and Trump's former homeland security adviser Tom Bossert "expressed enthusiasm about its potential as part of the administration's broader strategy to fight pandemics," Politico reports.

John Bolton, Trump's national security adviser at the time, ousted Bossert in 2018 and disbanded the NSC's pandemic response directorate, where the playbook resided. "It is not clear if the administration's failure to follow the NSC playbook was the result of an oversight or a deliberate decision to follow a different course," Politico says. A current NSC official told Politico "we are aware of the document" but called it "quite dated" and said "the plan we are executing now is a better fit, more detailed, and applies the relevant lessons learned from the playbook and the most recent Ebola epidemic."

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The dismissal of "longtime disaster expert" Bossert is part of a larger pattern of "empty slots and high turnover" that has "left parts of the federal government unprepared and ill equipped for what may be the largest public health crisis in a century," The New York Times reports. Between firings and voluntary exits, Trump "now finds himself with a government riddled with vacancies, acting department chiefs, and, in some cases, leaders whose professional backgrounds do not easily match up to the task of managing a pandemic."

Among the relevant vacancies, Reuters reports, are dozens of U.S. federal "health experts, scientists, and other professionals" pulled from Beijing "who might have been able to help China mount an earlier response to the novel coronavirus, as well as provide the U.S. government with more information about what was coming."

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