May 3, 2020 - Health

The front-line coronavirus leaders

Illustration of people pulling up the United States with ropes

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

When the history of the coronavirus pandemic is written, it will be remembered as a time when the strongest leadership had to come from the ground up, given the many failures at the national level.

  • These are the governors, mayors and other local government officials who have gotten the best reviews for their actions in this crisis — for taking swift action and heading off the worst outcomes, or simply for letting science guide their responses under intense political pressure.

The big picture: “Some of it has been heroics and some of it has been prevention,” said Andy Slavitt, a former Medicare chief in the Obama administration. “The commonality is, did you have a great health commissioner and scientists, and did you listen to them?”

  • These leaders also been working to fill the gaps caused by the Trump administration’s resistance to declaring a national strategy for many health care supplies — with governors scrambling to get personal protective equipment and medical equipment like ventilators, and even fending for themselves on testing supplies.
  • This isn't an exhaustive list — it's a sampling of the thousands of local leaders who have been doing important work on the front lines of the coronavirus response.


  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D): He didn't head off the worst outbreak in the nation, and he admitted to Axios’ Jonathan Swan that he wishes he had sounded the alarm sooner. But he still tops the lists for the public health experts we talked to for this piece, because he has led a turnaround and is well regarded for his regular, fact-filled public briefings.
  • Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R): The moderate Republican moved ahead of other states to shut down the schools and impose other restrictions, and always emphasizes the need to listen to medical experts. DeWine was “very early and decisive and good. And he is leading by science,” said Tom Inglesby, an infectious diseases expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
  • California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D): He wins praise for acting quickly enough to prevent the surge in cases that New York saw (though health advocates have recently become more critical of his approach).
  • Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R): He didn’t impose his stay-at-home order as early as other governors, but Hogan has earned respect for his practical approach and measures to expand testing, including universal testing at nursing homes. He even secured 500,000 test kits for the state from South Korea.
  • Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (D): She was the first governor to close schools for the year, and stuck to it despite drawing sharp criticism from Republican lawmakers who said she was overstating the danger.
  • Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R): He’s drawn attention from public health experts for leading one of the first state efforts to create an aggressive contact tracing program, which would track down everyone who has been in contact with someone who tested positive for the virus and get them to isolate themselves.

Local officials:

  • Sara Cody, Santa Clara county's public health officer: She’s the medical official who ordered the seven-county lockdown that helped the Bay Area — and California — get ahead of a potentially devastating surge in coronavirus cases.
  • Paul TenHaken, Sioux Falls mayor (R): He has carefully balanced South Dakota’s resistance to mandatory restrictions with the public health needs of his city, where a Smithfield pork processing plant became a hot spot. He enacted a measure that “strongly encourages” people to stay at home, but decided against an order.
  • Jenny Durkan, Seattle mayor (D): Axios' Kim Hart notes that she was the first mayor to be in the eye of the storm, and navigated it with transparent communication, halted evictions, pushed for more testing and imposed restrictions quickly.
  • G.T. Bynum, Tulsa mayor (R): He said the city will follow the state's business reopening plan, but stressed that guidelines will be strictly enforced to protect safety— and that he's prepared to declare any business that violates state guidelines "a health nuisance and shut it down entirely."
  • Lori Lightfoot, Chicago mayor (D): She wins praise for focusing on the outbreak at the county jail and hammering the stay-at-home message.
  • Francis Suarez, Miami mayor (R): His approach has been a contrast with his fellow Republican, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Suarez was one of first mayors to issue a stay-at-home order, asked Trump to suspend international travel to Miami's airport and warned partygoers: “If you’re coming for spring break, go home.” (He spent 18 days in quarantine during his own battle with the virus.)
  • Michelle De La Isla, Topeka mayor (D): She has focused on addressing the needs of vulnerable people in the community and was proactive in engaging the local business community in response to the virus.

The bottom line: All of these officials did the opposite of the traditional political playbook, which tells politicians to reassure people and play down threats. If any political leader does that with the coronavirus, said Slavitt, “you’re likely to get it wrong.”

Go deeper