In interviews and reviews of years of remarks, Leavitt and more than a dozen other current and former officials who led or shaped preparedness efforts across the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations described a two-decade evolution in how government leaders learned to fight killer viruses — and how America forgot those hard-won lessons as the Covid-19 outbreak loomed.
Government agencies slowly abandoned their pandemic-planning efforts, with the Homeland Security department in 2017 shelving its decade-plus efforts to devise models of how outbreaks affect the economy. Rather than train government staff to respond to a pandemic, as some high-level officials urged, FEMA in 2018 instead coordinated a massive mock exercise across nearly 100 federal departments focused on a hypothetical Washington, D.C., hurricane — even though federal officials had responded to three real-life hurricanes the year before and called the simulation unnecessary.
“We felt we were not prepared for a pandemic and needed to build muscle memory in the way that only a national exercise could do,” said Katrina Mulligan, who was the Justice Department’s top preparedness official at the time, reflecting the kind of would-have, could-have thinking among many ex-policymakers interviewed for this story. A former FEMA official told POLITICO that it was too late in the planning process to shift to a pandemic exercise.
Meanwhile, White House budget officials repeatedly rebuffed requests to fund the nation’s emergency stockpile, turning down the health department’s $1.5 billion-plus proposal in early 2019 and asking Congress for $705 million instead.