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Former Obama HHS Official Discusses The Federal Response To COVID-19 So Far

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

There was this hope by the Trump administration that somehow, in some way, the pandemic would just kind of fade away on its own. The Federal government's strategy, if you can call it that, has been to delegate pandemic response to the states, blame them if it fails and also blame the previous administration. Attorney General William Barr did just that as recently as Tuesday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM BARR: The problem with the testing system was a function of President Obama's mishandling of the CDC and his efforts to centralize everything in the CDC.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nicole Lurie served in the Obama administration as assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, and she joins us now. Good morning.

NICOLE LURIE: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So first your reaction to the attorney general?

LURIE: It's outlandish. The problem with this response is that there's been no person in charge. There's been no national plan. And there's been no assumption of responsibility.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to ask about the pandemic plans you worked on - and not about whether they existed or not, but about what kind of public education campaign they called for. PPE supplies and a reliable testing system is important, but so is getting everyone on the same page about how to approach the virus.

LURIE: We made great pains to have a single credible spokesperson surrounded by and backed up by others who different kinds of people in the community trusted. The messages were clear, consistent. And we did a fair amount of - if you might call it - market research to understand how best to reach different segments of the population and to be sure they understood what they needed to do to protect themselves.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, you talk about market research - as you know, there's been a breakdown in trust in the United States. An Associated Press poll in May showed that only half of respondents said they were willing to get a coronavirus vaccine. But this breakdown isn't new. Yesterday on this program, we heard from a researcher who found willingness to get a vaccine for H1N1 was under 20%, and that was in 2009. I don't need to remind you that, in certain parts of the population, there was a deep, deep distrust of President Obama and his administration. How did that factor into your plans when you say that you tried to adopt different messaging for different groups of people?

LURIE: Well, we went out all over the country. We held focus groups. We held exercises. We tried to understand what people believed and didn't believe with that vaccine and tried to help find people in the community who they would trust. We monitored vaccine uptake on a weekly basis, including for different racial and ethnic groups, just to be sure that when groups were lagging behind, we could try to put additional intervention and education in a community.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Was the scenario we're in now - minimal control of a highly infectious virus, limited adherence to safety measures by the public - ever envisioned and played out in simulations?

LURIE: There are lots of models, and they play out all different kinds of scenarios and what to do. What I don't think we played out in this scenario was a scenario in which there was basically absent or ineffective federal leadership.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: If you looked back at your tenure, would there be something that you would have done differently to prepare us for this moment?

LURIE: I think it's fair to say that, across the board, the public health system in this country needs to be strengthened. And I think what we can see is you can neglect and underfund a system for so long. Sooner or later, it comes back to bite you. I guess the other thing I would say is I always believed that our terrific, really seasoned career employees in government would be able to stand up and carry the day in the absence of really strong federal leadership. And we've even watched Dr. Fauci struggle to be able to do that and watched the attacks on him. But I certainly do wish that the kind of leadership and standing up that we've seen from him is something that we would see across government in this response.

And I don't know what you do to create the conditions for that to reliably happen. I do have the impression, from talking to many people, that there's been such a climate of fear created inside of federal government that many, many people who are totally capable of handling this response are afraid to stand up and to speak out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Nicole Lurie, former assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services. She's now with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. Thank you very much.

LURIE: You're welcome. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.