On March 11 the Board of the Plainville Tennis Club met—about a half dozen adults and a few children, cramped in smallish room at Plainville High School, making plans for tennis instruction, lessons, etc.
We mentioned the virus—it was beginning to lead the news every evening—and we exchanged anecdotes of hoarded toilet paper, the impossibility of finding hand-sanitizer, the likelihood that the high school spring sports seasons would be delayed. We didn’t talk about death and dying, although we knew the disease was deadly. In China maybe, but this was America.
It was March 11. On that same evening I shook hands with a man I’d never met before. I had heard the advice not to do so, but everything seemed theoretical and distant. We had heard warnings and piecemeal indications of the coming pandemic. But the building that evening was filled with parents and students—what could possibly be so dire?
But what we didn't know—what our leaders hadn’t told us—was what had happened before March 11:
—Early January: The National Security Council office responsible for tracking pandemics received intelligence reports predicting the spread of the virus to the United States;
—January 29: Despite Trump’s denial weeks later, he was told in a memo produced by his trade adviser, Peter Navarro, about potential risks of a coronavirus pandemic: as many as half a million deaths and trillions of dollars in economic losses.
—January 30: Alex Azar, directly warned Trump of the possibility of a pandemic. The president, who was on Air Force One while traveling for appearances in the Midwest, called Azar an alarmist.
—February 21: TDr. Robert Kadlec, the top disaster response official at the Health and Human Services Department, convened the White House coronavirus task force. He was desperate—he knew of an asymptomatic Chinese woman who had infected five relatives. “People are carrying the virus everywhere,” he said. A lockdown was necessary, yet the administration had no strategy for keeping the virus out of the United States. With that information at hand, Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, publicly issued the blunt warning they had all agreed was necessary: mitigation or carnage on a grand scale. Messonnier's warning sent stocks spiraling downward. Trump was furious. He raged that she had scared people unnecessarily. For three more weeks Trump talked as though COVID-19 woiuld simply disappear. "I got his," he implied. He didn't. He didn't even know what "this" was.
—March 11, as we talked tennis, Trump spoke from the Oval Office. There would be restrictions on travel from Europe, he said, but he continued to resist calls for social distancing, school closures, and other steps that would imperil the economy. The virus was already multiplying across the country — and hospitals were filled with severely ill people. Medical personnel lacked masks and other protective equipment, ventilators and sufficient intensive care beds. The question of what to do loomed over the president and his aides after weeks of stalling and inaction. But the stalling and inaction continued.
In Connecticut on March 11, there were very few cases of COVID-19 reported, all in Fairfield County. In retrospect our meeting carried very little risk. But the Trump failure to issue a shutdown order nationwide meant that people in hot spots were going into meetings like ours with much greater risk. A simple meeting like ours in New York City on the same date may have initiated hundreds of cases.
Most epidemiologists believe that a nationwide shutdown order in early March would have cut the death toll in half, and many believe that a shutdown order, combined with the extra two months for the medical community to prepare, would have cut the death toll by 90%. As of today, about 20,000 Americans have succumbed to the illness. It's a horrific number, even more so when we realize that infighting, indecision, and just plain stupidity in the White House may have accounted for most of them.
On March 17, Trump told reporters “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”
He didn't. He can't revise the history that he wrote, and he can't retract all the sanguine predictions that emboldened his lockstep followers—voters, mayors, and governors, to act recklessly, and in so doing cause themselves and others needless pain, and even death.
In this, the greatest country in the world, 20,000 are dead and 20,000 more seem certain to embrace the same fate, yet all the president can say is that we’re doing a terrific job. We may be, in our own individual away, but he isn't. His is malfeasance to a degree almost unprecedented, and yet in this partisan divide, Donald Trump may never pay the price for the blood on his hands. History will mark it, but for the dead and mourning, it will be too late.
It was March 11, and we were meeting—and we were damn lucky.