The coronavirus epidemic this week reached Beadle County, South Dakota. A single case tied to travel has exploded into 14 infections and counting, with no way to know how many were exposed while supply shortages forced the entire state to briefly suspend testing.
Confirmed cases in New York City, where hospitals have fallen into chaos as resources run thin, on Thursday surpassed Beadle’s entire population of 18,500. With too few tests for too many cases, doctors there already had been told it no longer made sense to test most ill patients.
From its biggest cities to its smallest towns, America’s chance to contain the coronavirus crisis came and went in the seven weeks since U.S. health officials botched the testing rollout and then misled scientists in state laboratories about this critical early failure. Federal regulators failed to recognize the spiraling disaster and were slow to relax the rules that prevented labs and major hospitals from advancing a backup.
Scientists around the country found themselves shackled as the disease spread.
“We were watching a tsunami and standing there frozen,” said Dr. Debra Wadford, director of the public viral disease laboratory in California, where some of the country’s earliest patients were identified.
The nation’s public health pillars — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration — shirked their responsibility to protect Americans in an emergency like this new coronavirus, USA TODAY found in interviews with dozens of scientists, public health experts and community leaders, as well as email communications between laboratories and hospitals across the country.
The result was a cascading series of failures now costing lives.