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Seven Fateful Coronavirus Decisions

Ambassador Robert C. O'Brien

By Robert C. O’Brien

Facing a once-in-a-century pandemic, a crisis that some have likened to a world war, the U.S. is fortunate to have President Trump in charge. I have witnessed him make the tough decisions necessary at every turn to keep America safe. Seven of these decisions stand out.

First, the president assembled a team. On Jan. 29 he established the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Now under Vice President Mike Pence’s leadership, the task force has consolidated the government’s public-health expertise and responded in real time to the virus’s spread. Deborah Birx, a world-renowned physician, was detailed on March 2 from the State Department to serve as the coronavirus response coordinator, joining Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who were already in the fight.

Second, on Jan. 31 Mr. Trump ordered travel restrictions barring foreign nationals who had recently been in China from entering the U.S., quarantines for Americans who had visited China’s Hubei province, and a strong advisory against Americans traveling to China. These moves bought time to prepare for the large-scale arrival of the virus on U.S. shores, but they weren’t popular at the time.

The next day, on Feb. 1, Joe Biden criticized the president’s “xenophobia” and “fear-mongering.” He stressed that “diseases have no borders.” It took until April 3 for Mr. Biden to do a 180 and come out in support of the president’s travel restrictions. The Washington Post editorial board condemned the restrictions on Feb. 5, positing that “Mr. Trump’s goal is to shut off the spigot of plucky, hopeful and ambitious people who aspire to become Americans.”

Third, on March 11 Mr. Trump suspended travel to the U.S. for foreign nationals who had recently been in 26 European nations, despite considerable pressure to exempt allies. The president extended these restrictions on March 14 to travel from the U.K. and Ireland, two of America’s closest partners. This was, again, a difficult and controversial call at the time, given our countries’ unique and longstanding ties.

Fourth, on March 16, as the virus began to stretch the public-health resources of major American cities such as Seattle and New York, the president issued the “15 Days to Slow the Spread” initiative, which included strict social-distancing guidelines and recommendations for those with the highest risk of severe illness. Mr. Trump understood the economic consequences but acted to protect American lives. After concluding that the damage to the economy would be even greater if the virus were permitted to spread unabated, the president extended these guidelines through April 30. Because of the president’s early initiative, the U.S. economy will soon be in a position to reopen carefully on a rolling basis.

Fifth, for many weeks the president pushed for the innovative use of therapies to fight the virus. On March 19 Mr. Trump announced the availability of remdesivir for patients in emergency situations and in a national clinical trial. While not yet proved to work, the antiviral drug has shown promise in academic research and in treating a small number of Covid-19 patients, and the Food and Drug Administration is also looking at other experimental coronavirus treatments to provide more tools to physicians on the front lines.

Sixth, Mr. Trump announced on April 3 that the CDC would issue guidelines recommending that Americans use cloth masks to help stop the spread of the virus and pave the way to get back to work. While some health-care experts had dismissed the idea, the president saw new research on the benefits of masks and successful examples in South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and got this important information to the American people right away.

Seventh, since the extent of the danger became apparent, Mr. Trump and his team have contracted with more than 10 ventilator suppliers to ramp up production. The suppliers will make more than 100,000 ventilators over the 100-day period starting March 27. The president also initiated a public-private partnership, Project Airbridge, to fly in essential personal protective equipment from around the globe. Working with governors, mayors, manufacturers and hospitals, the Trump administration has used every tool available, including the Defense Production Act, to break through bureaucratic red tape and ensure that critical supplies are prioritized and delivered to where they are needed most.

These decisions took courage. Many said that the most significant among them would be unpopular with the American people, harm the economy, or even hurt the president’s chances of re-election. Nevertheless, in each situation Mr. Trump acted decisively and put the American people first. That’s what I witnessed.

In my assessment, the president’s decisions outlined here have saved tens or even hundreds of thousands of American lives. The war on this virus isn’t over. But I am confident that under Mr. Trump’s leadership, America will prevail.

Mr. O’Brien is White House national security adviser.

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