A Pandemic Plan for the Too-Little, Too-Late Trump Administration
Our slogan now must be, “if you see something, do something.” Because if we don't safeguard our basic systems, such as our electricity, water supply, and the internet. If those break down, then we may pass the point of no return in terms of public behavior and start seeing violence.
Before, while or just after the White House announcement was made, “see something say something” would have been an invaluable mantra to follow. Any halfway experienced subject matter expert had to know that this short timeline without advance preparation was a recipe for disaster—and should have spoken up. The agencies responsible for dealing with the fallout of this rash decision should have pulled out all the stops. Thirteen airports were designated as ports of entry. But that, apparently, was it. No pre-screening was mandated, no special instructions given to these facilities. That’s on the administration. But, even if TSA, CBP and the airport authorities received no guidance or conflicting guidance, they could and should have come up with their own plans. They are the experts, the professionals, and the people with boots on the ground experience. They knew exactly what was coming and chose to stay with “business as usual.” That’s on them. In our example, the steps that should have been taken were not “rocket science” and could readily have been implemented by local management:
Stagger arrivals at airports to keep the crowds at a minimum
Call in maximum available personnel to staff all the immigration desks
Once landed, keep passengers in place until the immigration system is ready for them. Deplane in smaller groups if necessary
Screen passengers for elevated temperatures as they deplane, not hours later
Move passengers that are either COVID-19 positive, have symptoms or a temperature, to a separate screening line or at least an area separated by a physical barrier. Continue to enforce social distancing between ALL passengers
Clean any high touch areas constantly including counters and fingerprint readers. There are technology solutions to identifying potentially infected areas immediately
Provide consistent information to all passengers. Have medical personnel on-site to care for those passengers who have tested positive, have symptoms or a temperature. Inform passengers what resources are available. Hand out an information sheet on what a “fourteen-day quarantine” means and how to do it.
There are also mechanisms for checking and screening passengers before they board. In this instance, because airlines did not want to be responsible for flying ineligible passengers back home, their documents (passports and green cards) were checked before departure. In many previous instances, U.S. officials have been deployed to check people before boarding, i.e. to move the immigration process including customs, to the embarkation airport. With just a few days of advance notice, this could have been done in this instance as well, making for far more orderly and safer repatriation.
One very hopeful sign is that there are already companies and individuals stepping up to tackle this challenge with our characteristic ingenuity and independence. We’ve got gin, vodka and rum distilleries re-gearing to crank out the alcoholic hand sanitizer. We have people starting to 3D print parts for ventilators. That’s the spirit! Let’s see a lot more of that.
Acceptance also means remaining open to the thought of a silver lining. The hygiene methods we put in place will ultimately lead to a healthier population. The innovations that are being forced upon us, will probably transform our society permanently in some ways, but not all of them will be bad.
We have some of the brightest minds on the planet, and we have a history of independent initiative in places or situations where the state is absent. We need to give our experts the time and resources to find a solution—not only for us but for the world. And when this is over we will need to revisit our plans, study the lessons learned and modify our systems as appropriate to make us more resilient.
Charles Benard helped author the first U.S. National Pandemic Plan in 2005 as well as its update in 2017. He worked as the Associate Director for National Security Continuity Programs for the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) for nearly twenty years.