COVID-19: An ‘Exceptional’ Nation Fails its People as CN’s Editor First Learned 20 Years Ago

The failure of the U.S. health system to provide tests for those who need them goes back to the anthrax attacks in 2001 and the Swine Flu epidemic of 2009 in the “exceptional nation.”

By Joe Lauria
Special to Consortium News

The inability of the U.S. healthcare system to provide tests for its citizens at risk of an epidemic, or even a terrorist attack, is unfortunately not a recent phenomenon. 

I was present at an Oct. 18, 2001 press conference with then New York Governor George Pataki at the governor’s Manhattan office. It occurred during the anthrax attacks that followed Sept. 11. Shortly after the press conference ended, word went out that anthrax was found at the office and that those present should be tested.

An 800 number was given to call.  After 25 frustrating minutes on hold a doctor answered and told me, “Don’t worry about it. We can’t test you.” I was incensed. Why were those present told to be tested?

“Just forget it,” he said. And then he hung up.

It turned out that New York police, investigating anthrax at other sites in the city, had inadvertently brought anthrax spores into Pataki’s office. Only some of his staff there were tested. All were negative.

But it was a rude awakening. What the government and media report about a situation, creating a sense that government has things under control, may be very far from the truth when you are personally confronted by it.

Then in May 2009, I had traveled back to New York through Chicago’s O’Hare airport, which was said then to be a hot spot for the Swine Flu. Two days after arriving back in New York I developed a late-season, serious flu. It was on the very day President Barack Obama declared a public health emergency. So I tried to get tested for the Swine Flu. This is what happened, as I related in a piece for The Wall Street Journal.

Reporter Tries to Get Tested for Swine Flu

By Joe Lauria

It had been 10 years since I had the flu. But over the past week, I spent four days in isolation at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center after contracting a serious case.

I came down with the virus after being stuck for hours at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, which sees more than two dozen flights a day from Mexico.

Forty-eight hours later I had muscle aches, a cough, chills and a 102-degree fever. Authorities only seemed to be giving advice not to “go out.” But few doctors make house calls. Last Sunday night, as my condition worsened, I couldn’t reach my doctor anyway.

So I called New York City’s 311 helpline seeking an answer to a simple question: Since President Obama had declared a public health emergency that very day, where could I go in New York City to be tested for the A/H1N1 virus? With several students in Queens already ill and concern growing about its spread, I assumed health authorities had a plan to make testing widely available.

Joe Lauria, who spent four days in isolation at a New York hospital this week. (Corinna Barnard)

The 311 operator told me to call the New York’s State Health Department hotline, where I was informed to call my family doctor. With my doctor’s office closed, I called an emergency room to ask whether it could test for swine flu. A harried nurse told me to call 311 and hung up. I called the state hotline back to insist on finding out whether there were any facilities for testing. I never got a straight answer, which I took as “no,” there was no plan.

By the time I finally reached my doctor by phone on Monday, my left arm had lost its strength. She ordered me to the emergency room. But I first asked her to do a swab for swine flu. “No way, that’s in Washington’s hands,” she said. The state hotline confirmed it: Only the federal government could send a team to test a suspected case.

When I arrived at Montefiore Medical Center, the hospital immediately put me into isolation after hearing my story and confirming the fever. A doctor thought he could eliminate the possibility of A/H1N1 flu by swabbing for Type A influenza, which he said included swine flu. The swab came back negative. The doctor said I didn’t have swine flu.

Then, two days later, an infectious diseases doctor said it could not be ruled out that I had A/H1N1 because of the imperfection of the test on type A. But she said that by Wednesday, New York City was inundated and refused any more samples unless patients had recently been to Mexico or were in contact with known victims. Another doctor told me they specifically refused mine.

I called New York City authorities, who told me they don’t need to test everyone with the A/H1N1 virus and can’t. They said they test only to identify and contain areas of outbreak.

Don Weiss, director of surveillance in New York City’s bureau of communicable disease, said authorities do not have the resources to test everyone. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta is working to expand capacity for testing around the country, Mr. Weiss added.

“There are probably 10,000 people with the flu in New York,” he said. “We just don’t have the capacity to test that. People with the flu should stay home and call their doctor.”

The authorities acknowledged that the interests from a public health perspective, and that of an individual patient, differed. And that creates a public relations issue for city authorities to explain to flu patients why they don’t need to be tested.

I’m recovered now, after four days of isolation and because of the hospital’s excellent care. Did I have swine flu? It’s something I thought I’d never know unless I wanted to wait for a test to see if I developed the antibodies for it.

I thought I’d just let it rest. Then three days after getting home I called the hospital’s chief medical officer who informed me that after I was discharged my test results came in positive for Type B influenza. I did not have A/N1H1, something I wish I could have found out a lot sooner.

Joe Lauria is The Wall Street Journal’s United Nations correspondent.

My discussions with a senior city health official got heated. I could not understand why if people were being told to get tested, there were no tests available. I later learned that this official called the Journal to inform them that “an emotional man calling from a hospital room, complaining about not being able to be tested, claimed to be a Wall Street Journal reporter.” My editors informed him that yes, I was indeed a Wall Street Journal reporter.

The anthrax and Swine Flu experience prepared me for what we are now hearing about the difficulty of being tested for the coronavirus. I am not surprised because I long ago lost faith in a U.S. health care system that has never been prepared for an epidemic, let alone a pandemic. I understand though that calling oneself an “exceptional” nation, which is the best at everything, might mislead people to believe that it was. 

Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston GlobeSunday Times of London and numerous other newspapers.  He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @unjoe .

15 comments for “COVID-19: An ‘Exceptional’ Nation Fails its People as CN’s Editor First Learned 20 Years Ago

  1. Vera Gottlieb
    March 21, 2020 at 15:38

    “Exceptional”??? Why don’t we start by not calling the US ‘exceptional’…because it ain’t. The nation of opportunities…if you are white and rich. A PR that might have worked years ago but not today…

  2. Louis
    March 20, 2020 at 17:36

    Thank you Joe, your article reflects failures at multiple levels, of multiple “systems” that some still defend, possibly through ignorance or faith, but that will continue to fail.

  3. March 20, 2020 at 10:49

    Europe, with nearly universal government health care, is now the epicenter of this virus. They don’t have tests either because this is something, as Spock often said, like NOTHING WE’VE SEEN BEFORE. Their health care system has failed miserably. Italy has socialized medicine, how’s that working out for them? Our health system has NOT failed us, we, like everyone else, need time to invent tests, invent cures or find existing drugs which will help, ALL of which we are doing at a breakneck pace. Sorry Joe, you’re way off base on this one.

    • Joe Lauria
      March 20, 2020 at 11:14

      Issue in the US and in Italy is capacity. There has been no planning for a pandemic and in that sense the health system has surely failed in all countries that weren’t prepared. In normal times the Italian health system is far superior to America’s. The U.S. is certainly prepared to fight two major wars at once though. Just not this war.

    • Joe Lauria
      March 20, 2020 at 11:17

      I’m also not sure how you would have felt being in a room with anthrax during the anthrax attacks and coming down with a late-season flu during a national emergency on Swine Flu and not being able to be tested. I think you might conclude that the health care system had failed miserably too.

    • Vera Gottlieb
      March 21, 2020 at 15:40

      No, I think you are way off base. It is no secret that the American medical health system is a disaster – except of course, if you are rich. Even poor Cuba has universal health care – see if the US will ever get this far.

  4. Chet Roman
    March 20, 2020 at 09:05

    The “shortage” of tests is just continuing the historic approach to the spread of the flu, except that there is no vaccine (there is no cure for the Wuhan virus). In the past the policy was to let the virus move through the nation with vaccines offered on a voluntary basis and create “herd immunity”. In the 2017 flu season an estimated 80,000 people died in the U.S. from the flu but I never heard of anyone suggesting a nationwide testing program. I don’t ever remember in the last 50 years when there was a demand for mass testing including from the CDC. The U.K. is a current prime example, their initial strategy was to continue the historic process of letting the Wuhan virus spread and develop the herd immunity. However, Johnson seems to have been spooked by the spread of the virus and the death toll in Italy and Iran and, no doubt, by the public outcry (the death rate of the Wuhan virus is somewhere between 10 to 20 times higher than the common flu). He belatedly decided that isolation to mitigate the spread was necessary, unfortunately, much too late.

    So it’s not surprising that tens of millions of test kits are not immediately available. What’s needed is a change in federal policy to address pandemics (the CDC seems to have been asleep at the wheel), which looks to be emerging from the Trump coronavirus task force.

  5. A
    March 19, 2020 at 17:55

    So, please remind me why so many people look to government to solve so many “problems” in society?

    • Vera Gottlieb
      March 21, 2020 at 15:44

      In general, a government should be there to look after all its citizens. But then you have the case of the US government that will look only after those citizens who are rich, white…You stand up for your country but it will not stand up for you. And after this pandemic will be history…how many who really needed help got it? How many of the large corporations? It reminds me of…sink or swim, you are on your own.

  6. rosemerry
    March 19, 2020 at 16:04

    Joe’s story is interesting as well because the H1N1 flu at the time, blamed on Mexico of course but widely spread in California, cause a large number of infected people and some deaths and for 6 MONTHS was not really investigated and declared to be serious. However, it did spread around the world and is estimated to have killed at least 180,000 people and up to half a million.
    Nobody has called it “the American virus”, I notice.

  7. Nathan Mulcahy
    March 19, 2020 at 13:19

    Yes, we are exceptional. In many ways – not necessarily in a positive way. I suppose I am stating the obvious, except for the x% of Americans who are brain washed. What x stands for? wHat’s your guess?

  8. Roe Castelli
    March 19, 2020 at 11:27

    Both the parties are beholden to the Health Care Insurance industry.
    They have known this for eleven years.
    But none have failed as drastically as the Trump Administration,
    Wake Up America your a dying Empire that’s valued profits over morality.
    Meanwhile Sanctioned Iran lays dying.

  9. March 19, 2020 at 10:15

    Tests that show a positive result but offer no remedies many be personally useful but I am not sure how. Perhaps for epidemiology, to understand when and were positive results are appearing, they have value. I belong to the Kaiser health plan. Very early on they said, probably after consultation with the Centers for Disease control, to request a test when you have virus like symptoms. Makes sense. Testing everyone, which we seemed to be pushed toward, would be very expensive and create a great deal of unnecessary anxiety.

    Yes, there would be a benefit of encouraging distancing if someone is positive but I don’t think that justifies flooding the system with anxious people and depriving the really sick of needed care.

    Looking at the deaths from flu and comparing it with Coronavirus is not perfect, but it does suggest that far more die from the flu at this time. Admittedly, the onset of the virus in America is very recent, and yet to play out but at this point we seem to be sacrificing our overall well being because of this “Chinese” disease.

    It is also worth noting that despite the flu vaccine there are an awful lot of deaths from it. It suggests that it might happen with COVID-2 and there is no perfect solution, as there seldom is.

    For Joe, I understand since it was suggested to get tested and the tests weren’t there. The frustration is understandable.

  10. OlyaPola
    March 19, 2020 at 08:56

    “Given that WW3 is now decisively an INFORMATION WAR”

    Assertions are unwise – Mr. Schrodinger and his cat refers.

    “winners and losers”

    Framing in binaries is a facilitator of misrepresentation/representation – “virtual reality”.

    ” we can draw our own conclusions about winners and losers”

    So have conclusions is to believe in the end of time/end of history.

    “information (regardless how true or false)”

    Although some disagree omniscience can never exist nor can absolutes, only varying assays of “truth and falseness” which is obfuscated by/to those immersed in binaries.

    Thank you for your reliance on spectatorship which will likely minimise blowback to “yourself” and others.

  11. Tom Kath
    March 18, 2020 at 23:40

    Given that WW3 is now decisively an INFORMATION WAR, we can draw our own conclusions about winners and losers if information (regardless how true or false) cannot be obtained.

Comments are closed.