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AP FACT CHECK: Democrats distort coronavirus readiness

February 26, 2020 GMT
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Democratic presidential candidates, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, right, and former Vice President Joe Biden, left, greet supporters at the end of the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Gaillard Center, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in Charleston, S.C., co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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Democratic presidential candidates, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, right, and former Vice President Joe Biden, left, greet supporters at the end of the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Gaillard Center, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in Charleston, S.C., co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democratic presidential contenders are describing the federal infectious-disease bureaucracy as rudderless and ill-prepared for the coronavirus threat because of budget cuts and ham-handed leadership by President Donald Trump. That’s a distorted picture. For starters, Trump hasn’t succeeded in cutting the budget.

He’s proposed cuts but Congress ignored him and increased financing instead. The National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention aren’t suffering from budget cuts that never took effect.

A look at some of the Democrats’ remarks:

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MIKE BLOOMBERG: “There’s nobody here to figure out what the hell we should be doing. And he’s defunded — he’s defunded Centers for Disease Control, CDC, so we don’t have the organization we need. This is a very serious thing.” — debate Tuesday night.

JOE BIDEN, comparing the Obama-Biden administration with now: “We increased the budget of the CDC. We increased the NIH budget. ... He’s wiped all that out. ... He cut the funding for the entire effort.”

THE FACTS: They’re both wrong to say the agencies have seen their money cut. Bloomberg is repeating the false allegation in a new ad that states the U.S. is unprepared for the virus because of “reckless cuts” to the CDC. Trump’s budgets have proposed cuts to public health, only to be overruled by Congress, where there’s strong bipartisan support for agencies such as the CDC and NIH. Instead, financing has increased.

Indeed, the money that government disease detectives first tapped to fight the latest outbreak was a congressional fund created for health emergencies.

Some public health experts say a bigger concern than White House budgets is the steady erosion of a CDC grant program for state and local public health emergency preparedness — the front lines in detecting and battling new disease. But that decline was set in motion by a congressional budget measure that predates Trump.

The broader point about there being “nobody here” to coordinate the response sells short what’s in place to handle an outbreak.

The public health system has a playbook to follow for pandemic preparation — regardless of who’s president or whether specific instructions are coming from the White House. Those plans were put into place in anticipation of another flu pandemic, but are designed to work for any respiratory-borne disease.

Among the health authorities overseeing the work are Dr. Anne Schuchat, CDC’s principal deputy director and a veteran of previous outbreaks, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, NIH’s infectious disease chief who has advised six presidents.

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“The CDC’s response has been excellent, as it has been in the past,” said John Auerbach, president of the nonpartisan Trust for America’s Health, which works with government at all levels to improve the nation’s response to high-risk health crises. Some Democrats have charged that Trump decimated the nation’s public health leadership, but Auerbach said CDC’s top scientific ranks have remained stable during the past three years.

Will the preparations be enough?

One of the lessons learned in prior crises, such as the anthrax attacks, is not to offer false assurances when scientists have questions about the illness.

The CDC, for example, can accurately test for the virus but has struggled to get working test kits to state health departments. That’s key if there’s a need to rapidly increase the number of tests being performed.

The U.S. closed borders to travelers from China to buy time as preparations began but, “classically that’s not the way you address an outbreak,” Fauci told The Associated Press this week. “If you do it for a very limited period of time, temporarily until you can get things in order in your own country, it could have some benefit. But in general, the concept of closing borders, you cannot do that for an extended period of time.”

But with infections now in much of the world, one of the questions for U.S. policymakers is whether it’s time to modify any of those border or travel restrictions.

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Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.

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EDITOR’S NOTE — A look at the veracity of claims by political figures.

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Find AP Fact Checks at http://apne.ws/2kbx8bd

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