Apr 29, 2020 - Health

Watchdog turns to states for documents on Trump's coronavirus response

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

A watchdog group has filed more than 200 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests across 50 states, seeking communications between the Trump administration and state policymakers that contradict public coronavirus messaging or show how federal efforts fell short, particularly around testing.

Why it matters: Since states tend to be faster and more responsive to public records requests, the approach may offer a quicker path toward transparency and accountability than document requests to the federal government — or congressional investigations.

Emails exchanged between state officials in Oregon and Georgia and federal health officials at the HHS and FEMA obtained by Accountable and provided to Axios
  • So far, the group, Accountable.US, has received responses from Oregon and from Georgia — where Gov. Brian Kemp's move to reopen nonessential businesses early is being highly scrutinized.
  • "Where are my ventilators????" a Georgia official asks in a March 25 email.
  • “We are now stealing from Peter to pay Paul ... and this is not sustainable,” reads one April 15 email about testing supplies between the Department of Health and Human Services’ Preparedness and Response Office and the Oregon Health Authority.

Driving the news: The watchdog organization, which shared the initial batches of FOIA responses with Axios, says it's looking for everything from specific incidents to states' broad issues regarding safety protocols, medical supplies procurement and general COVID-19 response.

  • That includes questions surrounding why Florida beaches weren't closed during spring break and why Wisconsin held in-person voting on election day when state health officials said it was unsafe.

The Oregon documents, received Tuesday, show that in late March, a top HHS official acknowledged issues fulfilling public health laboratories’ orders for the CDC’s COVID-19 testing kit, even as Trump claimed there were no problems with testing.

  • The emails also show confusion on behalf of HHS officials over what supplies were available to Oregon health officials and whether state health officials should be going to HHS or the CDC to get more supplies.
  • "We’re all a bit confused about getting supplies," Oregon State Public Health Laboratory director John Fontana said in an email to HHS and Oregon state health officials on March 29.
  • In an email from Oregon state health officials to FEMA and HHS officials on April 15, one official asked for help understanding an interagency process around testing: "This is different and we need a clear understanding to move forward on our logistics system here."

In Georgia, state officials were warning about the asymptomatic spread of COVID-19 weeks earlier than Kemp, who claimed he only learned asymptomatic spread was possible on April 2, according to documents.

  • In one email from a logistics program manager from the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency on March 25 to officials at FEMA, the Georgia official asks, "Where are my ventilators???? They were supposed to be here last night and we waited until 0300 hours before giving up …… What say you????"
  • Emails also show that the Trump administration failed to deliver on the state's request for medical equipment, including 250 ventilators, leaving officials frustrated and confused.

What they're saying: “President Trump’s response to the COVID-19 public health crisis has been one of epic mismanagement glossed over with briefing room theatrics and misinformation designed to obscure the truth from the American people,” said Accountable.US president Kyle Herrig.

The other side: White House spokesperson Judd Deere said in a statement that President Trump took "an unprecedented" approach in his close work with governors and that the administration is committed to "close coordination and partnerships with state and local governments" including on supply chains, testing, data-driven social distancing guidelines "and now a responsible plan to open America again."

  • A White House official tells Axios that neither Georgia nor Oregon ultimately had a shortage of ventilators, that New York, Oregon and Washington's moves to return or transfer ventilators reflect initial overestimates, and that Colorado has backed away from some of its initial asks.
  • The official said early on states were making requests based on worst-case models and without always accounting for in-state resources through public and private hospital systems.

Be smart: It's too soon to say whether the FOIAs will ultimately uncover major missteps or inconsistencies by the administration, but emails released so far show the public messaging from the White House was more upbeat and confident than many conversations taking place behind the scenes.

What's next: The group plans to file more requests and make its findings available to the public.

Editors' note: This story has been updated to include a response from the White House.

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