Across the Atlantic, Jack Siebert, an American college student who spent a semester in Spain, struggles with severe headaches, shortness of breath and fevers that reach 104 degrees. Concerned about his condition for the trip but alarmed by the president’s announcement, his parents scrambled to book a flight home for their son “a raid shared by thousands of people. Americans in a hurry to get a flight from Europe.
Siebert arrived at the O’Hare International Airport in Chicago three days later as new restrictions on the United States ̵1; including mandatory medical screening – were implemented. He found several people wrapped in tight corridors, standing in lines where he had been snacking past other travelers for about five hours and trying to direct any coughing or sneezing on his sleeve.
When he finally reached the coronavirus check near the baggage pickup, Siebert reported his previous symptoms and described his exposure to Spain. But the screeners turned him down with a temperature check. She was given self-restraint instructions that hit her because the conditions she encountered at the airport were false.
“I can assure you that people are infected” with the transatlantic gantlet, said Siebert, who tested positive for the virus two days later in Chicago. “It’s people going through a pinhole.”
The order is repeated at airports across the country over the weekend. Stunning views of unmarked lines and unadorned faces in confined spaces spread across social media.
The images showed how a policy to block the entry of the pathogen into the United States was provided instead of delivering a final outbreak of the virus. As exposed travelers came from cities and suburbs of the United States, they became part of an influx from Europe that went unnoticed for several weeks and helped seal the country’s coronavirus fate.
Epidemiologists countered the outbreak of the United States driven by more moves from Europe than from China. More than 1.8 million travelers entered the United States from Europe in February alone when the continent became the center of pandemics. Infections reached critical mass in New York and other cities well before the White House took action, according to studies that mapped the spread of the virus. The crushing of travelers triggered by Trump’s announcement only added to the viral load.
“We are closing the door on China’s travel ban,” New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) last month as officials began to lament the failure. Waiting to cut off travel from Europe, he said, “we left the opendoor wide open.”
Trump repeatedly cited his decision in January to restrict travel from China as evidence that he had acted decisively to contain the coronavirus, often claiming that doing so saved more than a million lives. But it was the response of his administration to the threat from Europe that proved to be the worst result of the more than 94,000 people killed and the 1.6 million affected in the United States.
White House officials noted that the president was widely criticized for moving to limit travel from Europe, with many saying it was too draconian at the time. “The president made such a bold, early move that I think few leaders would have wanted to do – and because he saved so many lives,” spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said.
Lapses surrounding the spread from Europe stand alongside other breakdowns – in developing diagnostic tests, securing protective gear and imposing social isolation guidelines – for reasons of The United States has become very overcrowded.
The travel ban was triggered by many of the same problems that the United States response to the pandemic had caused from the outset: Initial warnings were either ignored or ignored. The coordination is chaotic or nothing. The major agencies fill their assignments. Trump’s false statements undermine his administration’s plans and endanger the public.
“We keep foreigners out of the country but not the virus,” said Tom Bossert, who served as the homeland security adviser at the White House until last year. The move to restrict travel has come more urgently to arrest the spread of infections already in the United States, Bossert said. “That’s a strategic mistake.”
This article that tracks the administration’s response to the threat to Europe is based on interviews with dozens of current and former U.S. officials, as well as public health experts, executive executives and passengers. Some spoke about the condition of anonymity to offer candidates assessments on events, decisions and debates on internal governance.
A messy president
European restrictions, which remain in effect, include bar access to non-US citizens or permanent residents from 26 countries. Britain and Ireland were first excluded from the list before being added on March 17.
The decision comes at a time when the country is still facing other measures critical of the outbreak. Schools have remained open, states have yet to issue house-to-house orders, and many officials still emphasize hand washing as an adequate way to prevent infection.
Lack of urgency is driven by a failure to understand the true dimensions of the threat. There were only 3,714 confirmed cases in the United States on March 13, the day travel restrictions were implemented, and 176 deaths were recorded. These numbers are considered invalid, not constrained by the lack of tests.
Within days, Trump asserted that he had covered the full range of dangers soon after the virus had fled to Wuhan, China. “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called pandemics,” he said on March 17.
However, Trump has spent most of the last month predicting the virus will backfire quickly and lower its severity. “It will be gone,” he declared on March 10, a day before his address from the Oval Office. “Just be quiet. It’s going to go away.”
Behind the scenes, customs officials have been scrambling for weeks to consider expanding travel restrictions beyond China. Deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger, based in Beijing as a journalist, argued at meetings in February that delivery was higher than reported in China and that if the community started spreading in Europe there would be little prospect containing it.
Pottinger made the case that “once it is in Europe, it will go to ‘whoosh,'” an old official said. Members of the administration’s coronavirus task force have even shown charts showing that the number of flights arriving from Europe has worsened from the influx from China.
In the third week of February, fears about Europe became reality. On February 22, Italy issued quarantine orders in 11 municipalities in the northern part of the country. It closed schools, canceled public events and halted train travel in both regions. Because there were no barriers to crossing borders within continental Europe, developments in Italy meant spreading to other countries was inevitable.
But Pottinger and a number of other officials who shared his concerns have faced opposition from powerful administrations fearing a massive economic collapse. Among the controversies against barring travel from Europe, officials, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Larry Kudlow, said the president’s chief economic adviser.
Even health experts seem skeptical. Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease, initially reacted hopelessly to limiting travel from Europe, saying at a February meeting in the Situation Room that the available data was not supported by a transfer, senior officials said. A spokesman for Fauci declined to comment, referring questions to the White House.
Few countries have subsequently imposed travel restrictions on countries other than China and its Asian neighbors. Europe did not issue complete travel restrictions until the United States ended it.
The debate over the issue was also sparked by the coronavirus task force. Trump appointed Vice President Pence to chair the panel on February 26 as Italy faced a major outbreak. Officials said it took a week or so for Pence to gain speed to threaten and drop possible responses.
Serious consultations about Europe will not continue until mid-March. After that, Pottinger gained a new ally. Deborah Birx, who joined the task force earlier that month, attended a White House meeting armed with troubling data on an influx of cases in northern Italy, as well as numbers that showed rapid spread throughout Europe. Then, on March 11, the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a global pandemic.
A tense meeting of members of the task force and other White House officials followed this afternoon at the Cabinet meeting. A small contingent then gathered around Trump in the Oval Office.
Mnuchin has remained opposed to the move, officials said, openly arguing about potential harmful effects on the economy. But others present, including Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser, and Alex Azar, the secretary of health and human services, argued that the United States could no longer justify the danger allow travel from Europe to continue uninterrupted.
Trump stood by the majority. But the sheer volume of practice – shaping one of the busiest aboard air corridors on the planet – seemed to escape her. And logistics demands to implement this plan in a 48-hour timetable were not even meaningfully discussed, officials said.
Instead, Trump and his inner circle seemed focused on presenting the announcement for maximum political impact, officials said. Jared Kushner, president and son-in-law’s counselor, encouraged Trump to deliver a formal speech that night and argued that details should remain close to preventing them from leaking.
Kushner met with senior policy adviser Stephen Miller in the latter’s office to work on a draft. The duo was accompanied by Pence’s hours and was still making edits until shortly before Trump’s schedule to go live on television at 9 p.m.
No drafts were distributed in advance to members of the task force or any of the agencies that had to make Trump’s decision, officials said.
“The president is in a bad mood,” an official said. As he sat in his chair, Trump swore about a stain on his shirt. “He’s not convinced that speaking is a good idea.”
This is only the second address of the Oval Office of his presidency, reflecting the gravity of the moment. But the result was a stumbling block in which Trump struggled to follow the text on the teleprompter and produced a series of gaffes.
“There has never been a less prepared set of comments from that room,” said a former administration official.
The actual policy does not include the plan to cut freight costs between continents, for example, but Trump has otherwise indicated. The restrictions “will not only apply to massive amounts of trade and freight,” he said, “but different things.”
The new restrictions include “exceptions to Americans undergoing appropriate screening,” he said. But few caught the significant glamor after his opening statement that the United States would “suspend all travel from Europe.”
As the networks cut down, Trump was caught blowing an “okayyyyy” as he slumped down in his chair. Then, he posted about his performance, officials said, as subordinates released statements and tweets to clarify or correct his mistakes. Within days, he blamed Kushner, telling helpers that he should not listen to his daughter-in-law.
Racing to get home
Even the timing of the speech became irresponsible. It reached the tail end of a three-hour window where dozens of red eyes leave the United States every night for cities across Europe. As a result, thousands of passengers learned about the new policy while over the Atlantic and scrambled on arrival when it came to changing their plans.
At Dulles International Airport just outside Washington, the cabin door on United Flight 989, to Frankfurt, Germany, was secured when Trump began speaking on television networks. As he spoke, the passengers began to rise from their seats in panic. Branding bulletins about speaking on their cellphones, some have pushed for leaks.
“He said they were closing the borders,” said a passenger. “I like this plane.”
The pilot and cabin crew began making angry calls to the supervisors for guidance. Bobbie Mas, a veteran flight attendant, dialed a hotline for U.S. employees, then the company’s office in Dulles, but no one answered.
He entered the cockpit to talk to the captain, who would be the first in line for any major air travel advice. The captain contacted the US operations desk – the plane’s nerve center – but officials were also scrambling for details.
The only warning sent to the plane was a call by former U.S. president Oscar Munoz, obtained from an administration official “literally minutes” before Trump began speaking, a company spokesman said. The official did not give details about what Trump would say except in connection with air travel.
By the time the Boeing 777 left for Frankfurt two hours later, nearly every US citizen had boarded the plane. For many, the decision was driven by a false impression made by the president that they risk leaving us in Europe for a month or so.
Among those who left Mas, who is also a union representative in the Association of Flight Attendants. Concerned that he had not packed enough prescription pills to last a month in Europe, he said he had requested to drop an aircraft for the first time in his 21-year career.
“There is fear and excitement,” he said. Save for the tense days that followed the September 11, 2001, attacks, he said, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
More excitement in the store.
The websites and telephone lines of the plane were circulated hours after Trump’s Oval address. American Airlines placed 700,000 calls on March 12, a spokesman said, more than five times the number on a typical day.
The journey across Atlantis has sunk. The number of passengers coming from countries targeted by restrictions gave 46 percent a single day, up from nearly 31,000 on the day Trump delivered his address to 45,399 the next, according to data from Customs and Border Protection. Friday’s traffic rose to 46,000.
Many U.S. citizens are fighting to return home before midnight on March 13, when the restrictions are set to go down – unaware that they have no policy fees and no waiting time. Although given the precise details of the policy, many refused to abandon their journey fearing the administration could suddenly change course and end the exemption.
An airline industry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said attendees at the gate at many airlines began making page calls after identifying passengers.
“We have customer agents who call the hundreds of security, telling us about individuals with symptoms,” the official said. “Our answer is to obey the policy,” the official said, which means they should not be kept from the aircraft unless they are unfairly ineligible to fly or have recently traveled to China.
Those who came before the restrictions kicked in the face of tight planes and extended waiting even without the additional layer of medical screening. But the next wave of travelers, which began arriving on March 14, completed the scenes in a public health nightmare.
Trump has spent most of his presidency fixing on U.S. borders and refusing entry to foreigners. In the possible response to a pandemic, imposing travel restrictions is one step Trump must master.
The ban on travel to majority-Muslim countries that Trump declared in the early days of his presidency has caused a stir at airports and points of entry into the border. Behavior delivered an early lesson on the consequences of exercising power without adequate planning.
When Trump moved to block travel from China in January, there were few indications of disruption to the affected airports. But as the president describes that decision as one he had made before others recognized the need, in reality the major planes were forcing his hand.
Delta and Americans announced on January 31 that they had suspended routes to China before Trump announced restrictions. United have told the White House that it has decided to do the same but is willing to stop announcing it publicly if Trump is prepared to act quickly on issuing an order, officials said. Wanting to claim credit for the action to contain the virus, Trump’s announcement came within hours.
European sanctions followed for six weeks but the riot passed in ways that were surpassed even by Muslim bans.
Current and former officials say major agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and Transportation, have no significant input on natural restrictions in Europe or how and when they will be implemented. An administration official said officials from both agencies were present at meetings where the ban was discussed.
The administration has scratled to round contractors to conduct temperature checks on tens of thousands of passengers. Officials say the scale of the mobilization has not yet taken place. Even so, contractors have been overrun by the rush of Trump-assisted travelers.
Even the most basic screening steps seem to backfire. The CDC failed to distribute a new paper questionnaire as soon as it was distributed to planes in advance, meaning that passengers should fill it in upon arrival. As a result, travelers found themselves reaching out to each other for slips of paper and pencils, delivering delays as the bottlenecks deteriorated.
The number of arriving passengers has indeed fallen on the first day under new restrictions. Only 19,418 passengers arrived from designated European countries, according to the CBP, less than half the number from the previous day. But even the dramatically reduced passenger volume seemed to be dropping airport screers.
Exciting pictures and expressions of anger were lit on social media throughout March 14. “To see yourself waiting four hours in a crowded customs hall is not social,” said a passenger arriving in San Francisco . “Fix or fail.”
One photo showed thousands of travelers line up in Dallas-Fort Worth without a mask or other protection. “It will not wrap around the curve,” the caption accompanying the tweet said.
Even JFK Airport in New York has “become a breeding ground for #CoronaVirus,” one traveler tweeted, in which biting people were subjected to “fruitless enhanced screening measures” # COVID19. “
But the most disturbing scenes emerged from Chicago’s O’SHare. By nightfall, conditions had made Illinois Gov. unsafe. J.B. Pritzker (D) began broadcasting on Twitter.
“The crowds and lines at O’Hare are unacceptable and need to be addressed immediately,” he tweeted at 10:50 p.m. “Because this is the only medium of communication that you pay attention to,” he said, referring to the president’s clear goal, “you need to make an NOW.”
He concludes with a final outburst: “The federal government needs to come together.”
Pritzker’s aides have been struggling to get answers from the administration earlier, but Twitter has caught the White House. Within minutes, Douglas Hoelscher, director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, called Pritzker. But instead of vowing to fix O’Hare’s problems, Hoelscher sued the governor for insulting the president and said Pritzker should only contact the White House.
The conversation was heated, with the governor saying the White House had failed to communicate or properly implement its plans, according to two people familiar with the exchange.
“There’s a lot of rocking,” said one of them.
Others respond in a more productive style. At 12:30 p.m. On March 15, Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of DHS, tweeted that his department was “aware of the long lines for passengers who are undergoing medical necessities.” He said the department was “working to add additional screening capacity” and asked the public for patience.
The next day, DHS officials identified procedural problems at O’Hare that helped explain why the wait times and lines were worse than other airports. Acting on the instructions of the supervisors, CBP agents held passengers until all of the screening data collected from them had been transmitted to the department computers. Other airports scrapped the paperwork, which was put up until later, soon after the lines began to hump.
When the OE did this, officials said, crowds and lines began to disappear. Critical problems further subsided late Sunday. Lines continued to shrink over the next few weeks as travel to Europe plummeted.
The strain of Europe is increasing
Within hours of Trump delivering the Oval address, experts warned it would be too late.
Bossert, the former homeland security advisor to the National Security Council, raised key questions about travel bans in an email he sent to public health experts and others this afternoon on March 11.
“Can we justify restricting travel to Europe, scientists?” Bossert asked the group, which gave itself to the moniker Red Dawn in reference to the 1980s movie. “Seriously, is there any benefit?”
The joyous answer he received from others was, “No.” The virus is too prevalent in the United States for travel curbs alone to make any difference. The only opportunity to contain the outbreak and save lives, some argued, was to impose violent abolition measures that would bring social, as well as economic, social ties into a stable .
Much of the data that has emerged about pandemics in the coming months appears to confirm that view.
Comparison of the genetic signature of different strains of the virus has enabled researchers to map its global outbreak with growing accuracy. After surfing in China in late December, the contagion moved to Europe in early February.
There is a quick window of maybe weeks when blocking travel from Europe could protect the Eastern Seaboard.
But in mid-February, European strains were established in New York, where they multiplied on the city’s goods and roads prior to departure abroad, according to findings released by Trevor Bedford, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington.
The virus then continued to cross the Atlantic – probably in the same direction – in the weeks before the Trump administration took action. In February alone, more than 1.8 million air travelers from Europe entered the United States, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Those travelers did not face even a test temperature.
An April study led by researchers at Northeastern University in Boston concluded that New York probably had more than 10,000 unspecified cases on March 1 – two weeks before European restrictions were imposed – that there are thousands of cases in San Francisco, Chicago and other cities.
“Horses in the barn,” said Stuart Ray, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University and a specialist in infectious diseases. Travel restrictions “can bend the curve down” when placed alongside massive testing, distributing protective gear on a very large scale and clear public messaging about social travel.
“Without that,” he said, “delivery could have the benefit of travel restrictions.”
Some of the Trump administration argue that such assessments are too pessimistic. Without European restrictions, “you would probably see a higher seeding in the United States,” and infections are still rising, an official said. “This is the advice we get from Birx, Fauci and others.”
But aside from the issue of timing, the key components of the screening measures appear to have failed. Temperature tests, for example, have proven to be an unreliable way to identify coronavirus carriers because many of the infectious individuals are, at least for the moment they face a thermometer, asymptomatic.
The plan also depends on the ability of the authorities to trace individuals exposed to incoming travelers. This usually requires taking passenger manifests from the airports and contacting anyone sitting within a few rows of someone who is trying positively. Officials said the CDC is struggling to get the information needed for “contact tracking” in a timely manner from airlines.
But this protocol is ranked by chaotic scenes at airports, and the resulting contacts impossible to keep track of.
Siebert, the student studying abroad, appears to have encountered all these issues upon his return from Madrid. Matapos punan ang talatanungan ng CDC at pag-uulat ng kanyang mga nakaraang sintomas, kinuha ng screener ang kanyang temperatura at humakbang palayo nang saglit.
“Mabuti ka, maghiwalay ka lang sa sarili,” sabi ng screener nang siya ay bumalik, ayon kay Siebert. Labis, nahuli ng estudyante ng drama sa New York University ang kanyang mga bag at binati ng mga miyembro ng pamilya na nagdala sa kanya sa bahay.
Siebert, 21, sinabi na hindi siya nakikipag-ugnay tungkol sa anumang impormasyon na iniulat niya sa mga opisyal sa paliparan. Kinabukasan, nakapag-iisa siyang nagpunta upang masuri sa Northwestern Memorial Hospital sa Chicago. Pagkaraan ng isang araw, bumalik ang mga resulta na nagpapatunay sa kanyang impeksyon.
“Sa huli, ako ay isang salarin sa pagbabalik ng coronavirus sa Estados Unidos,” aniya. Bumaba din ang kanyang ina na may sakit, kahit na ang kanyang mga sintomas ay lumitaw bago bumalik si Siebert. Ang dalawa ay nag-iisa sa kanilang sarili nang ilang linggo sa sambahayan, aniya, at walang ibang mga miyembro ng pamilya ang nagkasakit.
Siebert ay kabilang sa 110,000 mga pasahero na naka-screen sa unang apat na araw ng mga paghihigpit sa paglalakbay sa Europa. Ayon sa CDC, 140 mga kaso ng impeksyon lamang ang kinilala sa mga pagsusuri sa paliparan o kasunod na mga resulta ng pagsubok na naiulat sa sentro ng mga lokal na awtoridad sa kalusugan.
Kung ang iba pang mga manlalakbay ay nalantad sa impeksyon ni Siebert, malamang na hindi sinabi sa kanila ang anumang ito. Sinabi ng isang tagapagsalita ng CDC na ang sentro ay nagsagawa ng “pagsubaybay sa pakikipag-ugnay” sa siyam na paglipad sa Europa-hanggang-Estados Unidos mula nang magsimula ang mga paghihigpit. Ang Iberia Flight 6275 – ang kinuha ng Siebert upang makauwi – ay hindi kasama nila.
Nag-ambag si Julie Tate sa ulat na ito.