A group of public health and national security experts who sent some of the earliest and most dire warnings to officials across the Trump administration about the gathering coronavirus crisis is now offering a searing assessment of how the federal government blundered through the critical first months of a lethal outbreak.
Members of the group, whose lengthy string of emails now read like a chilling foreshadowing of the unfolding deadly pandemic, came to be known by the chains dark-humored subject line, Red Dawn Rising, a reference to the campy 1984 cold war movie about a gritty band of Americans who fend off foreign invaders. Now several have broken their silence about the early warnings in interviews with ABC News to describe their lingering distress about the missed chances to spare lives.
We did not step up and meet the challenge that we needed to meet, said Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, Seattle-King County Public Health Officer, and a contributor to the email chain. We didn't act quickly enough to do the things that we needed to do early enough. And we still are not doing the things we need to do to get this outbreak under control.
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The chain, which was first published in April by the New York Times, has at various times looped in 25 different federal officials involved in the pandemic response, including top medical advisors in the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, and Health and Human Services. The emails gave them access to unvarnished analysis from an informal collection of scientific and medical experts, a number of whom had a first-hand role in developing a robust national pandemic response plan in the mid-2000s.
The Red Dawn emailers have tried to maintain a low profile, but six of them agreed to speak with ABC News, most for the first time publicly. The detailed accounts paint a picture of a frantic, race-against-the-clock effort to raise alarms in hopes of prodding a faster, stronger federal response to COVID-19.
Dr. David Marcozzi, who was the White House National Security Council director of medical preparedness policy in disasters during the Bush and Obama administrations, said the participants were driven by a single agenda.
We were generally concerned that this was going to be a threat to our nation, Marcozzi, now a senior official at the University of Marylands medical school, told ABC News.
Dr. David Marcozzi, a former Bush and Obama White House official, was among the "Red Dawn" emailers.
The emailers, along with other public health experts, describe how the federal government missed opportunities to mount a more muscular defense and failed to brace the nation for the tidal wave of illness that was coming.
The president began to say [in March] that nobody could imagine that something like this could actually occur, said Dr. Dan Hanfling, a biosecurity and disaster response expert from Virginia. The truth is that there was a group of us that had been trying to raise the alarm.
Hanfling said it was unclear how much of the information from the chain filtered up to top policymakers. Senior officials including Dr. Anthony Fauci, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, and Surgeon General Jerome Adams, were copied into the chain at least once. Fauci told ABC News he didn't pay that much attention to the emails.
As an informal group of experts looking at this information, how much of that was penetrating to upper echelons of government? Hanfling said. It's hard to say.
Admiral Brett Giroir, an assistant health secretary who has helped run the pandemic response and who was occasionally copied on the Red Dawn email chain, said he believes the Trump administration has tried its best to be transparent, honest, and give the public the best information they know.
Because I think that's the most important thing is to have public confidence that you may not always be right, but you're always transparent, Giroir told ABC News. You're going give the American people the best information."
Admiral Brett Giroir, M.D., Asst. Secretary of Health for Department of Health and Human Services, speaks at a press conference with Vice President Mike Pence and Seema Verma, Administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicare Services, in Tiger Stadium on the LSU campus, in Baton Rouge, La., July 14, 2020.
Red Dawn Rising
Email excerpt, Mar. 12:
From: Richard Hunt [Senior Medical Advisor, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services]
As my 24 y/o told me, "the nation needs to go to war against this virus.
One early correspondent on the Red Dawn chain was Dr. James Lawler, a Navy veteran who served in the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barrack Obama and is now the director of clinical and biodefense research at the federally-supported National Strategic Research Institute in Nebraska.
Lawler said he still remembers the first alert he received on New Years Eve describing a pattern of "unexplained pneumonias" in China, and his initial outreach to what he called the pandemic preparedness community.
We're a small, odd bunch and these are the things that we talk about, he said.
The pace of the emails picked up quickly, Lawler said. And the list grew.
Hanfling, the biosecurity and disaster response expert, said he was added to the group in February, as the emails began tracking potential coronavirus cases as they started to appear on American soil.
I've heard our group referred to as the Wolverines, Hanfling said -- a reference to the nickname of the freedom fighters who emerged heroic in Red Dawn.
Dr. Dan Hanfling is a biosecurity and disaster response expert from Virginia.
Others in the group eventually included former White House health and security advisers like Dr. Richard Hatchett, who also served under both Republican and Democratic administrations and who now heads an global partnership formed to respond to outbreaks called the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and Dr. Herbert O. Wolfe, now a Penn State professor who also serves as executive director of the Office of the Chief Medical Officer at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
It was a serious group, Lawler said. Many folks who had thought for a long time about pandemics. And so, I think, a pretty good kitchen cabinet, if you want to call it that.
For those joining the Red Dawn chain, the initial hope was to offer a steady diet of thoughtful analysis for federal officials who wanted what Lawler called, unvarnished opinion.
There were no filters, he said. It was raw and straight.
Some government officials encouraged the input. In mid-February, Duane Caneva, who was appointed by Trump in 2018 to serve as the chief medical officer at the Department of Homeland Security, sent an email expanding the group of recipients.
Caneva wrote that the expanded "Red Dawn String" would give the participants the opportunity to provide thoughts, concerns, raise issues, share information across various colleagues responding to COVID-19."
A security guard stands outside the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market where the coronavirus was detected in Wuhan on January 24, 2020 - The death toll in China's viral outbreak has risen to 25, with the number of confirmed cases also leaping to 830, the national health commission said.
In some cases, government officials appeared to be learning about developments for first time from the Red Dawn emails. In one exchange, Eva Lee, the director of the Center for Operations Research in Medicine and Healthcare at Georgia Tech, flagged a study showing a 20-year-old woman left Wuhan with no symptoms and had infected five family members.
Dr. Robert Kadlec, the Trump administrations Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, appeared surprised. Eva is this true?! Kadlec replied. If so, we have a huge [hole] on our screening and quarantine effort.
Lawler said initially, that sort of reaction took him aback.
Too often, we were finding that our group [was] providing information to leaders who were hearing it for the first time from these informal channels, he said. And that was surprising and disappointing, to be honest.
Kadlec did not respond to a request for an interview through his office.
An early, queasy feeling in 2020
Email excerpt, Jan. 28:
From: Carter Mecher [Department of Veterans Affairs physician]
Anyway you cut it, this is going to be bad.
Among the first Americans to get a bad feeling about the news out of China in early January was Helen Branswell, the infectious disease reporter for the Boston-based health news website Stat News.
Branswell, who was not among the Red Dawn emailers, said it was just hours into the new year that she started to feel a queasiness in her stomach. On Jan. 2, she tweeted: Not liking the look of this.
She described seeing images on social media of Chinese authorities in hazmat suits spraying down the wet market in Wuhan, the original epicenter of the outbreak, and hearing early reports of widespread shutdowns in the city.
It rapidly grabbed my attention and held it, Branswell told ABC News.
Medical staff members wearing protective clothing walk next to patients waiting for medical attention at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan, China, Jan. 25, 2020.
Lawler said after he started seeing alerts about the mystery illness in China the Red Dawn members began to "look at these things [and] were giving each other the play by play on what we were hearing and what we were seeing, he recalled. And it was obvious very early on, in January, that this had the potential to be a serious global event.
At the time, the administration was still struggling to interpret the signs from China, said Tom Bossert, an ABC News contributor who was on the Red Dawn email chain and who served as a top Homeland Security Advisor to President Trump.
Bossert, who left the Trump administration in 2018, said government officials were so focused on containing the virus keeping it from crossing the ocean they were missing signs that people with no symptoms were capable of circulating it. Trump would announce a ban on most travel from China at the end of January.
To contain this in China or in Wuhan, that's a really noble objective, Bossert said. But that strategy, he said, didn't seem to recognize or understand the notion that you can have a lot of sick people, infectious people walking around in any community.
In those initial weeks, Lawler said the group was just starting their efforts to persuade leaders to look beyond efforts to block the virus from entering the U.S., and in the direction of bracing the public for potentially dramatic lifestyle changes that could slow down the spread.
These signs were out there pretty early -- good indications that asymptomatic infections were occurring and that those people were then able to transmit to others, Lawler said.
Hundreds of thousands could die. People were stunned."
Email excerpt, Jan. 28:
From: James Lawler [Former Bush and Obama White House official]
Great Understatements in History:
Napoleon' s retreat from Moscow - just a little stroll gone bad"
Pompeii - "a bit of a dust storm"
Hiroshima - "summer heat wave"
Wuhan - "just a bad flu season"
By February, members of the Red Dawn chain were solidifying their view that what started as a mystery illness in China was poised to become an epidemic of historic proportions.
Lawler shared his early projections during a speaking engagement at a reception for the American Hospital Association. When he began to rattle off the numbers, he recalled, the room grew uncomfortably silent. Without a clear and aggressive response, he said he expected 96 million Americans to contract COVID-19, and as many as 480,000 would die.
People were stunned, he said.
Not only were the health care executives taken aback, he said. When he shared the figures with members of Congress and officials within the executive branch, he said he saw a similar reaction.
They had not heard these types of projections before, Lawler said. The fact that folks were hearing these numbers for the first time from me was concerning.
Dr. James Lawler, a former Bush and Obama White House official, was among the "Red Dawn" emailers.
Currently, approximately six months into the outbreak, more than 4 million positive cases of coronavirus have been reported in the U.S. and more than 140,000 Americans have died, according to a count by Johns Hopkins University, despite many parts of the country taking on drastic lockdown measures.
Around the time of Lawlers presentation, Fauci was appearing in Washington at an Aspen Institute panel discussing the outbreak.
Branswell, the Stat News reporter, was moderating. At one point, Fauci was asked to explain why the U.S. government was still so focused on keeping the virus from entering the population, instead of turning more attention to preparing for it to spread.
Thats the message that is very fine-line sensitive, Fauci responded. To let the American people know that, at present, given everything that is going on the risk is really relatively low.
Branswell told ABC News she remembered being puzzled. And it showed. Explain to me why the risk is low, somebody? she responded. I cant see why theres no force field around China.
Fauci said his caution stemmed from the fact that, by this point in mid-February, the U.S. had only 13 confirmed cases of coronavirus. But he acknowledged this view could be wrong.
Is there a risk that this is going to turn into a global pandemic. Absolutely yes, he said. There is. There is.
In an interview with ABC News, Fauci said that, even looking back now, he believes it was reasonable to make the assumption that the risk of spread was low, because, at that moment, so few cases had made it across the ocean.
As a scientist, the thing you must always do is to be humble enough to know that when you get additional information, even information that might conflict what was felt earlier on, you then change your viewpoint and you change your recommendations based on the data that you have at that time, he said.
Science is a learning process, he said. To think that we knew everything right at the first day that we knew that there was a new virus, I think is just unrealistic.
Dr. Anthony Fauci is the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Many of those interacting with federal officials through the Red Dawn chain said they understood that none of the decisions in the midst of a crisis are easy.
We recognized the incredible challenges and really fraught decisions, Hanfling said.
A slowness in revving up a response
Email excerpt, Feb. 29:
From: Eva Lee [Medical research expert, Georgia Tech]
We need actions, actions, actions and more actions. We are going to have pockets of epicenters across this country, West coast, East coast and the South. Our policy leaders must act now. Please make it happen!
Inside the Trump Administration, officials have had mixed views about the early steps taken to respond to those waving red flags about the burgeoning crisis.
Giroir, the four-star admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, said he believes the administration took early, aggressive action. Beginning January 9, he said, the health service began a deployment of officers to nursing homes, field hospitals and Native American reservations that would eventually number more than 5,000.
On February 3, I issued an order that everybody in the corps was on alert, Giroir said. For the first time in our history everybody needed to be ready to go.
By Feb. 15 he said the health corps had seven strike teams assembled to help monitor travelers arriving in several key U.S. airports. But until his team started seeing the virus blazing through the community, he said no one was sure what to expect.
This may be fine and may go away, or it may be the big deal that we've all been training for and planning for our whole careers," Giroir said.
Perhaps the biggest challenge confronting federal leaders during a pandemic, Lawler said, is knowing when to acknowledge that it is occurring.
In one of the Red Dawn email exchanges, Lawler chided the assertions by President Trump that the spreading virus would be no worse than a bad flu.
Dr. Matthew Hepburn, a U.S. Army infectious disease expert, replied with his advice: Team, am dealing with a very similar scenario, in terms of not trying to overreact and damage credibility. My argument is that we should treat this as the next pandemic for now, and we can always scale back if the outbreak dissipates, or is not as severe.
Redfield, the CDC director, described the phenomenon as he experienced it, acknowledging he may have been lulled into a false sense of confidence that the virus would be more easily contained.
The CDC responded quickly, he said, to the first person in the U.S. was identified with coronavirus on Jan. 21. That person, Redfield said, had made 50 to 60 contacts before being isolated, and his agency worked hard to evaluate all of them.
None of them were infected, he said.
Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Robert Redfield, speaks during a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing at the Department of Education building Wednesday, July 8, 2020, in Washington.
After the CDC had identified 12 more cases involving people traveling into the U.S. from Wuhan, they traced some 850 more people who had been in contact with those travelers.
We only found two individuals that were infected, and both of them were intimate spouses, he said. So initially it didn't seem like this was infectious-infectious-infectious.
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As coronavirus threatened invasion, a new 'Red Dawn' team tried to save America - ABC News