The Virus: What Went Wrong?
As COVID-19 spread from Asia to the Middle East to Europe, why was the U.S. caught so unprepared? Despite repeated warnings of a potent contagion headed our way, America’s leaders failed to prepare and protect us. Why and who is accountable?
>> NARRATOR: America is reopening.
>> Protests over the death of George Floyd while in police...
>> NARRATOR: People are taking to the streets...
>> ...the ongoing protests could cause a spike
in coronavirus cases...
>> NARRATOR: Amid fears of a second wave.
Correspondent Martin Smith looks at how we got here.
>> Anybody that needs a test gets a test...
>> Did you say to him, "Look, Mr. President,
with all due respect, it's not true what you're saying"?
>> Yeah, I'm not going to comment on the conversations
I've had with the president.
>> NARRATOR: The missteps and the denials...
>> This is their new hoax...
>> We have leaders throughout much of January and February
saying that this is a hoax.
>> Every lab is fighting for itself;
every state is fighting for itself.
>> NARRATOR: Now on "Frontline," "The Virus".
>> There will be thousands who will die needlessly,
because of our lack of preparedness.
>> MARTIN SMITH: December 31.
("Auld Lang Syne" playing)
One million people crowded into New York's Times Square
to celebrate what they hoped would be a bright new year.
("Auld Lang Syne" continues)
What no one knew at the time was that a highly infectious virus
was rapidly moving toward them.
>> ♪ New York ♪
♪ New York ♪
(Theme from 'New York, New York' ends)
>> Scientists say a new virus related to SARS
may be responsible for a mysterious pneumonia
outbreak in China.
>> SMITH: I had begun reporting on the coronavirus
several months ago.
>> The new coronavirus was found in 15 of 59 patients.
>> SMITH: I had just returned from the Middle East,
where I was covering events in Iraq and Iran.
Out of caution, I decided to quarantine
in the Catskill Mountains, two hours north of New York City.
I would do my reporting from here.
>> As it stands right now, the CDC believes
that the risk to the American population is low.
But we just don't know how contagious this virus is.
>> SMITH: I wanted to understand where we were headed.
Were we prepared?
Were warnings being heeded?
(Skype tone playing)
Among my first calls was to Dr. David Ho...
A renowned American medical researcher
who I met years back when I was reporting
on the AIDS epidemic.
You don't look too worse for wear.
>> (chuckles): I'm just putting up a good front here.
>> SMITH: Dr. Ho had worked to stem the spread
of SARS in 2003.
Now he was worried about the spread of COVID-19.
Do you think people are grasping how,
how serious this situation is?
>> I, I think people hear the news.
They watch the coverage.
But it's hard to fully comprehend.
Certainly, we did not realize that our government
would be so ill-prepared.
We knew long ago what China was experiencing.
I think it, the, there was a false assumption
that that's somebody else's problem.
It would not happen to us.
But that, that's the same kind of attitude
that people had about many other epidemics in the past.
We, we knew, if this thing blew up,
it would just continue to spread.
>> SMITH: Wuhan, a major commercial hub in Central China.
The first case was identified here on November 17.
No one knew what it was.
But just a few weeks later, it was clear something was wrong.
Amy Qin reported from China for the "New York Times."
>> In December, there were starting to be these patients
that were trickling into these hospitals in Wuhan
with this pneumonia that doctors were really puzzled by.
It was unclear how to treat them.
They were giving them medicine and they weren't getting better,
and they were still running these very high temperatures.
And the rumor was that this is a virus
that people need to be aware of.
>> SMITH: Throughout December, more and more people continued
to come into Wuhan hospitals with high fevers and coughs.
Then, on December 30, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist
at Wuhan Central Hospital, Dr. Li Wenliang,
logged on to a group chat with some fellow medical school
He was worried.
Have you seen the record of what was said, what he was saying?
It really wasn't that outrageous statement he made or anything,
just simply said that, "I heard in our hospital
there are cases of SARS-like symptoms."
>> SMITH: Liu Baifang Schell and her husband, Orville,
are longtime China experts.
And that was enough to bring the authorities down on him.
>> The Public Security Bureau came
and made him sign a confession,
and made him agree to, to be quiet.
And that's a very threatening thing,
because the Public Security Bureau is no joke.
It's a secret police force, and people are fearful of it.
>> In China, there's an entire system of online surveillance,
in which they can monitor what's happening, and I think,
in this case, they would've been able to use certain key words
to track what people were saying.
And actually, local authorities, the police, have broad powers
to look into the personal messages of its citizens.
>> SMITH: Local Wuhan authorities issued
a formal directive ordering other doctors
not to discuss the mysterious pneumonia.
(reporters speaking Chinese):
>> SMITH: Despite the silencing of dissent,
Chinese scientists were working to map the genome of the virus.
>> COVID-19 was very quickly sequenced, and very quickly,
people discerned that it was about 80% related
to the SARS coronavirus.
But given the speed of the subsequent spread,
it should have been apparent to all that there must have been
>> SMITH: It surprises me to see that as of January 12,
the World Health Organization issued a statement saying,
"There is no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission."
>> They certainly said that, but, you know,
they weren't on the ground.
They were probably recounting what was reported back to them
by the China CDC.
>> SMITH: Shouldn't they have known?
>> Well, they should have been asking tough questions.
This was obviously an epidemic that was being spread by humans.
>> SMITH: But with Lunar New Year around the corner,
no one wanted to spoil the festivities.
>> (speaking Chinese):
(man speaking Chinese):
>> (speaking Chinese):
(people talking in background)
>> Chinese New Year every year is a really festive time.
This is the time when everyone gets together
with their families and in their neighborhoods,
and in one neighborhood in Wuhan,
called Baibuting, they had organized this large banquet,
at which 40,000 families ended up attending.
>> If you have a big celebration,
you don't want to have bad news.
And the same holds for the Chinese New Year.
If you bring up bad news during that time period,
it is said that you'll be cursed with bad happenings
for the rest of the year.
>> SMITH: Making matters worse,
millions of people left Wuhan in this period to visit friends
and family across the country and beyond.
>> (speaking Chinese):
>> (speaking Chinese):
>> SMITH: It was not until January 20
that the Chinese Health Ministry declared
what was already obvious.
The virus was spreading from human to human.
>> Some ominous developments out of China.
Officials there have just confirmed
the first human-to-human transmission of coronavirus.
It's a huge story...
>> The W.H.O. did not announce
the prospect of human-to-human transmission
almost two months after this thing began.
And it was two weeks after Taiwan had warned them
that there was human-to-human transmission.
>> Wuhan, China, ground zero for the outbreak,
now under lockdown.
>> SMITH: By January 23, Wuhan was placed on lockdown.
>> All trains and planes out of that city halted just tonight.
>> Eerie for a city 11 million people call home.
>> SMITH: It was then that people around the world began
to take notice.
>> I perfectly remember the moment in which we start fearing
this issue, and it was when we have seen all those Caterpillar
building a new hospital in just less than ten days.
>> SMITH: Dr. Stefano Fagiuoli heads the department
of medicine at a hospital in Bergamo, Italy.
>> It's in a place far away from us.
So it was all TV show.
But then, I remember I was having a meeting
with some colleagues, and I said, "Look,
"but if they are building a whole hospital,
"there must be something beyond our perception."
And I said, "I think we need to be prepared."
>> Two new coronavirus cases have been confirmed here
>> (speaking Italian):
>> SMITH: In fact, by early February,
cases began showing up in other countries,
including the U.S.
>> ...about the deadly coronavirus officially
hitting the U.S....
>> A ninth person has tested positive for coronavirus...
>> This is now the third case in Ontario,
fourth case in Canada...
>> SMITH: Meanwhile, Dr. Li Wenliang,
the Wuhan doctor who had warned of the deadly virus
at the end of December, had been hospitalized a little over
a week after he was ordered to stay quiet.
By late January, he was on a ventilator,
struggling to breathe.
By February 7, he was dead.
>> His death was really a shock.
And at that time, that was the lowest point in China's battle
with the epidemic.
And his death really put a human face on the cost of it.
>> SMITH: When news of Dr. Li's death surfaced,
Chinese social media exploded in outrage.
>> He, he told people truth at the end of December.
>> SMITH: It got the attention of Dr. Zhong Nanshan,
an 83-year-old highly respected pulmonologist,
a top adviser to the government.
>> And then he passed away.
>> SMITH: He now dared to defy the party.
>> I think the majority of the people think he is,
he is the hero of China.
>> SMITH: That seemed unusual to me,
to hear somebody that is an authority like that
to criticize the government.
>> Well, Dr. Zhong Nanshan, I mean,
the reason why he has so much credibility with the public
is because he's willing to push back against the government
and criticize the government when it's necessary.
I think he was speaking,
just saying what most people in China feel.
>> This is Chinese doctor.
I suppose majority of Chinese doctor actually like him.
>> Everyone would go out onto their balconies
and turn the lights off and hold their cell phones up.
It was really incredible to see.
>> SMITH: A month earlier, the Trumps greeted the new year
They hosted a big party at their Mar-a-Lago mansion.
>> Tonight, a new year, and an impeachment trial looming.
>> Family members, honored guests,
and hundreds of members of President Trump's private club.
>> Our country has never done better
than it's doing right now.
We have the best unemployment numbers,
we have the best employment numbers.
Almost 160 million people are working.
Our country is really the talk of the world.
Everybody's talking about it.
Thank you very much.
("Hail to the Chief" playing)
>> SMITH: But that weekend,
the director of the Centers for Disease Control,
Dr. Robert Redfield, received a phone call
from the American CDC office in China.
>> I was actually on a vacation with my children, their spouses,
and my 11 grandchildren up in Deep Creek, Maryland,
and I did get notified from our CDC China office
on New Year's Eve that there was a cluster of cases
of a unspecified pneumonia in Wuhan, China,
that seemed to be linked to a seafood market.
>> SMITH: The call was one of several
that interrupted his vacation.
>> And if you talk to my wife,
she said I spent most of the time on the phone talking to...
>> SMITH: On January 3, Redfield called
his Chinese counterpart, Dr. George Gao.
>> It got to the point that Redfield's counterpart
even breaks down crying during one of the conversations
that he has with him.
>> SMITH: Michael Shear is a White House correspondent
for the "New York Times."
>> Uh, which underscores for, for Redfield
the seriousness of what the Chinese believe at that point
that they're dealing with.
The memory of those previous viral infections--
SARS and another one called MERS--
they really ravaged that part of the world.
So I think what you can, what you can probably draw from it
is a, is a bit of the anxiety on the part of the doctor sitting
there in China, thinking to himself,
"Geez, what if this is as bad as SARS?
What if it's worse?"
>> SMITH: Shear stands by his reporting,
but Redfield told me that Gao was not very alarmed.
>> He felt pretty confident that there was no evidence
of human-to-human transmission,
and that really was the extent of it.
>> SMITH: So he wasn't very concerned.
If there was no human-to-human transmission confirmed,
then he wasn't very concerned at that point?
>> Back in January 3rd time frame--
3rd through 6th time frame--
um, there was not a sense of urgency from him.
>> SMITH: But Redfield was concerned, and called his boss,
Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human Services.
He also notified the National Security Council
at the White House.
The president had already begun receiving daily briefings
from the U.S. intelligence community.
Some contained warnings of a serious contagion
with dire economic and social consequences.
>> They call it the PDB, the president's daily briefing.
And the virus begins to pop up in those, just a sort of, hey,
you know, this could be something,
and we should keep an eye on it.
>> SMITH: You say it's in his brief,
we know that he doesn't always read his brief.
>> SMITH: So what do we know about...
When did the president know?
>> That's a good question about whether or not
he might have actually read it.
He's never been clear any of the times that he's been asked,
and I think our reporting suggests that, um, as you say,
it's, it's not clear at all that he reads the briefing.
>> SMITH: And the president now says he was distracted.
>> I mean, I got impeached.
I think, you know, I certainly devoted a little time
to thinking about it, right?
>> SMITH: And busy securing a big trade deal with China.
>> A rare moment of collaboration
after more than two years of acrimonious talks.
>> SMITH: During this period, Azar was trying to alert
the president, but couldn't get a meeting.
Instead, over two weeks passed before he got a call back
from Mar-a-Lago on a Saturday.
And the president wanted to discuss something else.
>> The president was not reached
by Secretary Azar until January 18.
And the president's first concern at that time was
to talk about e-cigarettes.
>> SMITH: Stephen Morrison is a health policy expert
who has long warned that America was unprepared
for a pandemic like this one.
>> And Secretary Azar was having a hard time
conveying the gravity of the situation to the president.
>> SMITH: This is 18 days after the Chinese government
has recognized that they are seeing deaths from this,
and it takes 18 days for Azar to get to the president.
>> SMITH: Was that the president's
first true briefing on this?
>> As far as I know, it was the first serious
>> SMITH: But it is unclear how much Azar pressed
He declined to be interviewed.
According to Michael Shear, Azar actually reassured the president
that he didn't need to worry.
>> What Azar wanted to communicate to the president
was, "We got this.
We're not, we're not taking this lightly.
CDC is on it, FDA is on it.
We're monitoring it closely."
But also not, like, "We all have to panic
and shut the country down."
I mean, at this point, it's really,
everybody is in the mode of, you know, this...
"We gotta keep an eye on this."
>> Are there worries about a pandemic at this point?
>> No, not at all.
And we have it under control.
It's, uh, gonna be just fine.
>> SMITH: As late as January 26, Dr. Anthony Fauci,
the nation's top infectious disease official,
downplayed the dangers.
>> The American people should not be worried
or frightened by this.
It's a very, very low risk to the United States
because we have ways of preparing,
of screening of people coming in.
But it's something that we, as public health officials,
need to take very seriously.
>> SMITH: A prominent biostatistician,
Nicholas Jewell, had been tracking the virus
for over a month.
>> There was still a remarkable lack of urgency
in the Western world.
That this was actually almost inevitably going to reach
their shores, and that it was going to be
potentially catastrophic unless we took major steps.
So there's no question in my mind that we lost the time
that we had gained from the early warning
coming out of China.
>> SMITH: On January 29,
White House economic adviser Peter Navarro sent the president
a lengthy memo warning there was a risk of massive loss of life.
He urged flights from China to be halted.
The next day, Secretary Azar had a second call
with the president.
This time, he was more concerned.
He warned the president that that the coronavirus
might become a serious pandemic.
>> The virus has been spread rapidly over the last month.
>> SMITH: The president responded by restricting
some flights from China, but not all.
And millions of people had already left Wuhan, anyway.
And many of those people were flying out
to the rest of the world.
>> Yes, in fact, there are direct flights from Wuhan
to many cities in the U.S.
And that was happening throughout the month of January,
until the lockdown.
>> SMITH: So those are extremely important weeks.
>> SMITH: In fact, in the month before President Trump's
decision to restrict flights, an estimated 380,000 people entered
the U.S. from China.
Even afterwards, if you were an American, you were exempted.
And flights from Europe were not restricted
for another six weeks.
Furthermore, asymptomatic carriers were not detected.
>> One of the things that they didn't know at the time was,
even if a person isn't symptomatic,
doesn't have a fever,
maybe that person is still spreading the virus
all over the place because they have it,
and they're just not showing symptoms yet.
>> SMITH: The virus could spread undetected.
Restricting flights proved to be a half measure.
>> Those of us who study viruses knew that we're gonna be hit
in waves here in the U.S.
We had lost six weeks sitting on the sideline watching China
struggle, and watching other countries struggle,
thinking that if we shut our borders, uh,
we'll, we'll be fine.
>> SMITH: Jeremy Konyndyk, a specialist
in global health issues,
remembers meeting with some Trump administration
officials around this time.
In, um, February, you sat down
with some administration officials, correct?
>> So, it was an off-the-record dinner,
so I can't say too much specifically about it,
but it was very clear that most of the bandwidth
that the administration was focused on--
enforcing the, the travel restrictions on China,
tracking people who had come back from there,
that was the, the ball that they had their eye on at that time.
>> SMITH: What's wrong with that?
>> Well, what... I was, I was quite gobsmacked by that,
because, to my mind, the biggest priority at that point
was not preventing it from coming here,
because it was inevitable that it would come here.
You know, it's fine to try and keep it out,
but you have to do so with the expectation that at best,
you're buying time.
>> SMITH: The problem was that the administration was failing
to understand the basic math behind a pandemic.
>> If I tell you there's 30 cases in the United States,
that's not going to scare you.
That's not going to cause you to shut down your cities.
If I tell you there're 60 cases in the United States,
you still feel very comfortable.
120, 240, and so on.
You don't feel the power of exponential growth
until it's absolutely stunning.
So when you say, "Oh, if there are 10,000 cases
in the United States, then we ought to pay attention,"
the trouble is, in two or three days now, it's 20,000.
Within another two or three days, it's 16 times.
So it takes a long time to ramp up exponential growth,
but once it gets your attention, it's stunning in its speed.
>> SMITH: In New York City, an infectious disease specialist
with New York-Presbyterian Hospital started to see cases
he suspected of being COVID-19 by mid-February.
>> We started to hear that there were a lot of viral illnesses
that we were not able to identify.
I started hearing conversations,
suggestions from a lot of the community doctors in our area,
that maybe we were seeing early spread here.
>> SMITH: During this time, the president is saying
everything's under control.
People that want to get a test can get a test,
that this is going to disappear when the weather warms up.
How did you take that in at the time?
>> You know, it was tough, because, you know,
as clinicians, when you get the sense something is going on,
you're waiting for the ability to confirm that.
But most of the response was, "You know what?
Until we see a large number of cases,
we don't want to overrespond.
We don't want to be, you know, the boy who cried wolf."
>> SMITH: In fact, there were people who thought you were
a little bit out there.
They said, "What's wrong with Dr. Griffin?"
>> Well, that was, uh, that was actually when I reached out
to one of the, um, other infectious disease physicians
in the area, and I said, "Hey, we really should
start communicating and preparing."
Um, and yeah, his response to one of my partners was,
"What's wrong with Dr. Griffin?"
"Why, why is he, like, getting so worked up about this?"
>> SMITH: Dr. Griffin was not alone.
Many doctors and scientists were increasingly concerned
that America was not prepared.
Among the first countries outside China to face
the coronavirus was South Korea.
Their response is now a case study
in how to handle an outbreak.
Back in 2015, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome,
or MERS, had scared them.
I spoke to South Korea's foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha.
>> The lessons from the MERS experience,
uh, was, was instrumental.
I think that failure had the seeds for the success this time.
>> SMITH: Officials called an emergency meeting.
With just four known cases of COVID-19
in the whole country, health care officials summoned
20 private companies on January 27 to a conference room
inside Seoul's central train station.
>> The train station in Seoul is not just a train station.
It's a multifunction complex.
And so, if you want to bring in experts
from all across the country and have a quick meeting,
this would be the ideal place.
>> SMITH: Dr. Yi Hyuk-min was at the meeting
and headed the initiative.
>> SMITH: The meeting, the meeting was tense.
>> Yeah-- yeah, yeah.
>> SMITH: It was tense because no one knew
how contagious the virus was and how much time they had.
>> SMITH: Based on their experience with MERS,
the number of infected people could be doubling
every few days.
In a matter of weeks, South Korea could be looking
at over 100,000 cases.
Moving fast, just days after the train station meeting,
four companies had developed COVID tests.
Just over a week later, one was approved for use.
By February 7, 46 labs across the country
began to test people.
A process that ordinarily could take a year had been completed
in just over a week.
There were only four cases when they had their meeting
and, and call to action.
>> That's right.
And, you know, they recognized how dangerous this was,
and even if all you have are four cases,
that is a dangerous moment.
>> SMITH: They tested around 10,000 people daily.
>> They then swung into action very decisively,
and set up this enormous testing regime
along with very robust tools for monitoring cases
and tracing contacts and isolating
and quarantining people based on that.
They began acting before it seemed like
they needed to do so.
>> SMITH: Former head of U.S.A.I.D. Dr. Rajiv Shah
was astounded by what South Korea was able to do.
>> They have just deployed an army
of community health personnel who are spraying Purell
on, on people going in and out of the subway,
who are wiping down public spaces and contact points,
who are making drive-through testing available
very broadly by doing swab collections
and and mailing it in to a public health
where, uh, and reference labs that can validate
the data quickly.
>> SMITH: They thought everything was under control.
>> South Korea appears to be flattening the curve.
>> South Korea has done better than most
of the other countries around the world.
>> SMITH: They had found only 30 cases.
>> The lowest number of new cases...
>> A leader in the global fight against the new coronavirus.
>> Something they're doing is working.
>> SMITH: Then, on February 18, they identified
a 61-year-old woman in Daegu, South Korea.
At the time, they had discovered no other cases in Daegu,
but when they traced her contacts, it led them here.
The Shincheonji Church, a Christian sect that claims
over 200,000 members who believe that their leader,
this man, is the messiah.
Officials knew they had a big problem.
>> It became obvious that this was a cluster that was at risk,
and then we decided to trace the group as a whole,
and this is about 9,000, 10,000 people.
>> SMITH: So, you tested 9,000 members of the church?
>> Not all of them, but we contacted them to the extent
that they were traceable, asked if they had any symptoms.
The percentage of positives among them were much higher
than any other groups.
>> SMITH: Health officials found that thousands
of church members were positive, and they were quarantined.
Dozens would die.
Today, South Korea, along with Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam,
has managed to control the spread of the virus
better than most countries.
In Seoul, a crowded city of ten million people,
there have been just four known deaths.
In the country of South Korea, how many deaths, approximately?
>> It would be 260... 264.
>> SMITH: The number has now crept up to around 300.
By mid-January, the CDC was busy
developing its own diagnostic test.
>> Good morning, everyone.
>> SMITH: On January 28, Secretary Azar announced
they were ready to go.
>> This is really a historic accomplishment.
Within one week, within one week,
the CDC had invented a rapid diagnostic test.
>> Right out of the gate, I was feeling really good
about the process.
>> SMITH: Scott Becker is the C.E.O.
of the Association of Public Health Labs.
>> We were gonna be able to cover the country
to a good extent for the surveillance
and early detection that was really job one.
>> SMITH: But that optimism evaporated
by the end of the first week in February.
>> It was Sunday morning,
I woke up a little bit late.
I read my texts and my emails,
and I start seeing these messages.
(email alerts ringing)
"We're having a problem."
"Is anyone else seeing this?"
I call that an "OSM," it was my "oh, (bleep)" moment.
And I remember thinking, "Oh, my God, wait till governors
and others find out about this.
We're all counting on getting testing up and running,
and what a nightmare this is gonna be."
So, it was pretty devastating to everyone--
the CDC staff to public health labs to epidemiologists,
the public health community.
You know, we were left without the biggest tool in our toolbox.
>> Government officials discovered contamination
in a CDC lab in Atlanta...
>> SMITH: By then, a diagnostic test developed
by German scientists was available
from the W.H.O.
But U.S. officials would insist it was better
to find an American solution.
>> Any of these groups can submit their testing kits
through our regulatory processes,
but without that and without a plan,
we are not going to accept tests
that have not been studied by us.
>> Good answer, that's a good answer.
>> SMITH: Is that excusable,
that they failed to have a test ready to go?
>> That's inexcusable, in my book.
I mean, how can you distribute something that is so critical
to monitor the epidemic, and then have it be faulty?
We cannot distribute drugs like that.
We cannot distribute other FDA-approved tests
in that fashion.
So that's certainly inexcusable, and it, it set us back,
uh, for a good month, I would say.
>> SMITH: Is it unusual to have a glitch in the initial tests?
>> I have not seen another mistake like this at CDC.
The tests have rolled out very effectively,
without a glitch in the past.
>> SMITH: Tom Frieden was head of the CDC
during the Obama administration.
Is there any bigger misstep or stumble here
than the failure to test?
>> I think, when we look back at what went right
and what went wrong, we're going to focus on February.
What should have gotten done in February that didn't happen.
>> So my first question to you
is, uh, does the CDC's test for coronavirus work?
>> Yeah, uh, the problem was in, when the test was sent
to the states, one of the components
had a contaminant in it.
>> SMITH: I asked Dr. Redfield why South Korea succeeded
where the U.S. failed.
>> Korea had already developed private-public partnerships
through the MERS thing, and really had invested enormously
appropriately, and that's what our nation had not done
over the last 30 years.
So, you won't get an argument from me
that the public health workforce has been really
underinvested in for decades.
>> The CDC now says it's now going to send improved tests
to the labs facing problems.
>> SMITH: Weeks were lost while the CDC
remanufactured the tests.
If the failure at the CDC and the outbreaks in China
and South Korea did not instill more urgency,
the February outbreak in Iran should have.
This is Qom, a place of pilgrimage for Shiite Muslims
from all over the world, including China.
It was here that the world's next major outbreak
of the virus erupted.
From the beginning, Iran's leaders, like America's,
played down the dangers.
A mixture of religion and national pride
had delayed Iran's response.
Iran would soon be reporting the world's highest mortality rate.
>> We never thought Iran would be one of the first countries
hit, uh, by the pandemic.
But for whatever reason, because of our contacts
or because of other reasons,
we were one of the first countries hit.
>> SMITH: I was able to reach Iran's foreign minister,
Javad Zarif, in Tehran.
It was 6:00 in the morning my time.
Why do you think you were so hard-hit?
What, what are the theories now?
>> Well, nobody knows.
I mean, uh, it was at a time when, uh, more than anything,
the population was unprepared.
>> SMITH: In fact, it was natural that Iran would be hit
with a virus from China.
It is not only that Chinese pilgrims come here.
Iran faces tough U.S. economic sanctions, and as a result,
China has become Iran's lifeline to the outside world.
>> SMITH: Kamiar Alaei is an Iranian health care expert
living in exile in the U.S.
>> SMITH: The flights were on Iran's largest carrier,
But Zarif told me that Iran canceled its flights from China
at the same time as America did.
>> I think we were one of the first, uh, to limit flights
and to screen passengers.
>> SMITH: The Americans cut flights to, from China
at the end of January.
>> My information is that our decision was made
basically in the same time zone as the others.
>> SMITH: Yet one analysis of flight records shows
that Mahan Air flew over 55 round-trip flights
to and from China between February 5 and February 23.
They flew on to Iraq, Syria, Turkey,
Lebanon, and other countries.
All the while, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei,
would continue to downplay the virus.
At one point, he said it was possibly a biological attack.
>> (speaking Farsi):
>> SMITH: Do you agree with the supreme leader
that the coronavirus was perhaps a biological attack
by the United States upon Iran?
>> Well, there are a lot of speculations on all sides
about this, I said it's not unreasonable to believe that.
(people talking in background)
>> SMITH: Talk of a biological attack was a distraction.
Tehran's hospitals were overwhelmed.
On social media, people were seen collapsing in the streets.
>> (man speaking Farsi):
>> (speaking Farsi)
>> SMITH: The government also delayed the closing
At least 23 senior government figures caught the coronavirus.
Reportedly, around a dozen senior officials died.
Iraj Harirchi, the deputy health minister,
appeared at this press conference clearly ill,
while denying he had the coronavirus.
>> He said, "No, this is just, you know, common cold.
It's not a serious thing."
>> SMITH: The next day, however, he tested positive
and was hospitalized.
Many of Iran's faithful continued to deny
the seriousness of the situation.
>> (speaking Farsi):
>> SMITH: It wasn't until March 16 that the government closed
(crowd shouting, clamoring)
>> (speaking Farsi):
>> It took some time for us to close the shrines.
We have a very traditional society,
with people who still do not agree with us.
>> SMITH: By then, government officials had began enforcing
social distancing and stay-at-home orders.
But it was too late.
Today, Iran has reported over 180,000 cases
and 9,000 deaths.
(people talking in background)
>> SMITH: Coronavirus should have been no surprise.
The world has seen an increasing number of viral outbreaks
in recent years.
>> ...official tells us that there may already be hundreds
more fatalities than have been reported.
>> SMITH: In 2014, the deadly Ebola epidemic
was a big wake-up call.
>> This is an epidemic of dysfunctional health systems.
>> SMITH: Jeremy Konyndyk led the U.S. government's effort
to fight it.
>> It was a monumental effort to bring that outbreak
I think all of us who were involved in that effort
looked back at that and said,
"Wow, a truly airborne or droplet-style respiratory
pandemic is going to be so much worse
and so much more difficult."
And so there was a real urgency in the final years
of the Obama administration to begin laying more groundwork
for that kind of a scenario.
>> SMITH: To address potential threats like this, the
Obama White House organized a pandemic response team
inside the National Security Council, the NSC.
>> We have to put in place an infrastructure
so that if and when a new strain of flu like the Spanish flu
crops up, five years from now or a decade from now,
we've made the investment.
>> SMITH: But in 2018, after Trump tapped John Bolton
to head the NSC, the pandemic response team
Its members were reassigned.
Its leader, Admiral Timothy Ziemer, left.
Bolton has maintained that he was simply streamlining
bloated NSC operations,
and that it did not hurt America's pandemic response.
But last year, Stephen Morrison headed a bipartisan effort
to address America's pandemic response capacity.
His report, released in November 2019,
recommended the pandemic response team be moved back
to the White House.
>> We live in an era in which we're seeing increasing rapidity
and increasing velocity and increasing impacts
of these new pathogens coming at us.
This is the condition of our microbial universe today.
>> A SARS-like virus has now spread into Japan.
>> More than 10,000 people died from H1N1.
>> The idea that you would disband your capacity willfully
at the White House, aware of the developments
of the last two decades, which were convincingly
that we needed to be prepared, and far better prepared,
on a consistent and sustained and coherent basis.
>> SMITH: What's the explanation that would be given?
>> Well, I can't speak for John Bolton.
I presume that they wanted to see that responsibility
moved over, out of the White House, to the secretary of HHS
and to those who worked underneath him.
>> SMITH: So what's wrong with that decision
to move this capacity over to the HHS?
>> The mistake there is to assume that the secretary of HHS
is able to see the full picture and be able to command
the different elements of our government to respond
in a coordinated and coherent and integrated way.
Um, that can only happen, uh, through an empowered entity
at the White House.
So, by definition, we set ourselves up
for a slow and sluggish response.
A slow, sluggish, and halting response.
>> SMITH: The virus was about to slam into Europe.
>> (chanting, singing)
>> SMITH: On February 19, a championship soccer match
was set to kick off in Italy's largest stadium...
(crowd singing, cheering)
>> SMITH: The Atalanta team from Bergamo, in Lombardy,
won the game.
>> Atalanta had made it four-nil.
>> SMITH: Afterwards, Bergamo became the epicenter
of Italy's outbreak.
(crowd cheering, clamoring)
>> SMITH: Dr. Stefano Fagiuoli of Bergamo remembers.
>> I had ten colleagues from our hospital
which went to see the game, and ten of them,
they all got infected.
>> SMITH: Oh, my God.
When I spoke to Dr. Fagiuoli,
he was quarantined at home after catching the virus himself.
>> It's interesting that the two main outbreak in Spain
are close to Madrid and Valencia,
which was the other, the opponent team.
>> SMITH: In the beginning, Italy, like China and Iran,
was slow to react.
Dr. Marco Vergano is an anesthesiologist in Turin.
>> We, we were conducting really, the usual,
a normal life, a social life in the last week of February.
And it is really difficult to implement the social distancing
measures when you don't have your hospitals already
overwhelmed by patients.
>> SMITH: But they were losing valuable time.
Flights were cut from China, but, as in the U.S.,
Italy hesitated to do more.
The job was left up to town mayors.
>> (speaking Italian):
>> (speaking Italian):
>> (speaking Italian):
>> They became viral on social media.
People, I think, uh, realized quite soon
that, uh, this was a way to protect them
and protect others.
(man speaking Italian):
>> Probably this happened maybe a couple of weeks later
than, uh, than was necessary.
Because what, what we know is that if you implement
some real stringent social distancing measures
at the beginning of the surge,
and since this is an exponential surge,
just maybe 24 or 48 hours earlier is enough
to avoid more than 30% or 40% of the number
of infected people three weeks later.
>> SMITH: The closing of flights from China
had done little to stem the spread.
In January, the government of Italy was celebrating
a new initiative to increase Chinese tourism.
Two Chinese tourists from Wuhan arrived in Milan on January 23.
They tested positive a week later.
The virus was already here.
>> Italy's surge in cases now marks the biggest
coronavirus outbreak outside of Asia.
>> With the death toll leaping by more than 50% in one day...
>> Italy is the hardest-hit country in Europe,
with more than 7,300 reported infections.
>> SMITH: Was there a moment in time when this really seized
>> In, in my case, personally,
it was that Skype call from the task force in Lombardia
from this friend of mine.
He told me, "I have seen scenes in hospitals
that I will never forget in my whole life."
He described the hospitals with, uh, people in hallways
and people dying outside of hospitals,
because even there were not enough ambulances,
or ambulances were in a queue outside of the hospitals.
>> SMITH: Hospitals in Italy's north were overwhelmed.
There were not enough beds, let alone ventilators.
>> In, in a condition with a severe shortage of resources,
and maybe you have ten people in need of a ventilator,
and, and only one or two ventilators available.
>> SMITH: And they need to be used by younger people
that have a greater chance of survival, right?
>> SMITH: The government did not order a nationwide lockdown
until March 9.
(people talking in background)
>> SMITH: To date, over 34,000 Italians have died of COVID-19.
Seeing what was happening around the world,
top American public health officials were
increasingly convinced that halting flights
from China was not enough.
>> I think most health officials agree that at best, it delays,
and as the secretary says, kind of pauses things.
>> SMITH: Dr. Fauci and two other officials planned
to confront the president on February 26.
>> A broad pandemic throughout the world,
travel restrictions are not gonna help.
You can't just travel-restrict everyone.
>> The public health officials, Redfield, Anthony Fauci
at the N.I.H., Stephen Hahn at FDA,
they had all decided that was gonna be the day
they were gonna tell the president, "Hey, look,
we need to, we need to be more aggressive here."
>> SMITH: But before they could do that,
Dr. Nancy Messonnier, a top CDC official,
spoke out publicly.
>> Tonight, the CDC is calling the coronavirus
a "tremendous health threat."
>> We are working to ready our public health workforce
to respond to local cases, and the the possibility
this outbreak could become a pandemic.
>> SMITH: It was a dire warning.
>> The virus has killed more than 2,200 people
and infected infected nearly 77,000 worldwide.
>> SMITH: The president was on his way to India.
>> Thank you, Mr. President.
>> SMITH: There, he was reassuring.
>> You may ask about the, uh, coronavirus,
which is, uh, very well under control in our country.
We, uh, have very few people with it.
>> SMITH: But as he prepared to return home,
Messonnier spoke to reporters again.
>> Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread
in this country.
It's not so much a question of if this will happen anymore,
but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen
and how many people in this country
will have severe illness.
>> Federal health officials said today that coronavirus
will certainly begin spreading...
>> It is not a question of "if," but "when."
>> As Nancy Messonnier is giving this briefing to reporters,
the president is just getting on Air Force One
in India to fly home.
So, as he's flying home, the stock market crashes
a thousand points.
>> Wall Street continues to sell on those coronavirus fears,
the Dow falling close to 900 points today...
>> TV is broadcasting nonstop about how this is gonna change
the way Americans live, and of course,
the president hadn't been briefed on any of this.
So, by the time Air Force One lands,
Wednesday morning on the 26th, he's fuming.
The big economic success
that he's constantly touting is under assault,
from his viewpoint.
He picks up the phone and calls Azar, yells at Azar, says,
"You're scaring people to death here.
What's going on?"
But the, but the big consequence
of, of that is that the briefing
that the public health officials had intended to do for Trump,
that evening after he had returned,
that briefing never happens.
>> SMITH: Angry with his public health advisers,
Trump refused to meet with them.
Talk of more aggressive measures,
such as stay-at-home orders and strict social distancing,
was put off.
Messonnier's warnings were heresy.
>> They then, the next day,
dedicated an entire presidential press conference
to walking back the, the warning and the assessment
that she had given.
>> Thank you very much, everybody.
Thank you very much.
>> And with the benefit of a month's hindsight,
she was 100% right.
She accurately anticipated what was about to happen.
She tried to warn the country of that.
And, uh, the White House tried to furiously walk it back.
>> Mr. President, the CDC said yesterday
that they believe it's inevitable that the virus
will spread in the United States,
and it's not a question of "if" but "when."
Do you agree with that assessment?
>> Well, I don't think it's inevitable.
It probably will, it possibly will,
it could be at a very small level
or it could be at a, at a larger level.
Whatever happens, we're totally prepared.
We have the best people in the world.
>> As someone who served in government, I can tell you,
that kind of behavior sends a very, very clear signal
to government workers about what is
and is not permissible to say.
>> SMITH: It's interesting that it's very much like
what happened in China in late December and early January.
>> The parallels are very, are very striking.
I think it's immensely irresponsible of people
in this administration to be blaming China
for that kind of behavior,
even as they have engaged in it themselves.
>> SMITH: Dr. Nancy Messonnier would be sidelined.
Alex Azar was removed as head of the task force.
He was replaced by Vice President Pence.
>> Mike is gonna be in charge, and Mike will report back to me,
but he's got a certain talent for this, and, uh, I'm gonna ask
Mike Pence to say a few words, please, thank you-- Mike?
>> SMITH: What talent Vice President Pence was bringing
was not clear.
>> Thank you, Mr. President.
>> SMITH: When he was governor of Indiana,
he had slashed the state's public health budget.
As a staunch evangelical Christian,
he had questioned scientific advice.
>> So you don't feel like you're being replaced?
>> Not in the least, I'm, I... >> He's not.
>> When the, when this was mentioned to me,
I said I was delighted that I get to have the vice president
helping in this way-- delighted, absolutely.
>> SMITH: The daily press briefings became a platform
for the president's positive messaging.
>> You are hearing the line that the risk for Americans
is low, which comes from everybody's mouth,
from the president on down.
>> How should Americans prepare for this virus?
Should they go on with their daily lives,
change their routine?
What should, what should they do?
>> Well, I hope they don't change their routine, but maybe,
Anthony, I'll let you, uh, I'll let you answer that, or Bob?
If you want to answer...
>> Sure, Mr. President. Thank you.
I think it's really important that, as I said,
the risk at this time is low.
The American public needs to go on with their normal lives.
>> SMITH: You said, February 29, "The risk at this time is low.
The American public needs to go on with their normal lives."
>> It was true at that time, Martin.
I think the risk was low.
>> SMITH: But by this time, China had had an outbreak.
Iran was in the midst of a major outbreak, as was Italy.
And you're saying, "At this time, the risk is low."
>> Yeah, well, the risk was low
to the general American public at the time.
>> SMITH: But the fact is that we had stumbled in February
to test adequately, to test enough people
to know where things were going.
How can you say that when we had such inadequate testing?
>> Well, the purpose, I'm sure, of your documentary
is to help identify lessons and correct them
so we don't repeat this.
Many of us are in the arena,
where, as Teddy Roosevelt would say, we're marred and bloody.
Uh, we're trying to dare greatly.
Hopefully, at best, we'll know the triumph of high achievement,
and, you know, at worst, we'll fail by daring greatly.
>> SMITH: Throughout February, the president had continued
to hold his rallies.
>> Hello, Phoenix.
Hello, Las Vegas.
Great to be with you.
Where else would you like to be but a Trump rally, right?
>> SMITH: He blamed others for exaggerating the threat.
>> Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus.
You know that, right? Coronavirus.
They're politicizing it.
And this is their new hoax.
>> SMITH: The president would not call for social distancing
for another two-and-a-half weeks.
>> We have leaders throughout much of January and February
saying that this is a hoax.
>> 35,000 people on average die each year from the flu.
Did anyone know that? 35,000.
And so far, we have lost nobody to coronavirus
in the United States.
>> It's a complete denial of science,
and leading to all sorts of decisions
that are harmful to our country, to our planet.
>> SMITH: You're quoting the president.
He made these comments.
Is it your view that he knew better than that,
or was he simply misinformed?
>> I cannot psychoanalyze the president,
but we know that he, he has a tendency to, to believe
he's the best at everything.
And he probably thinks he's better than the scientists.
>> And you wonder, the press is in hysteria mode, fake news,
and their camera just went off.
>> I think if he were practicing medicine,
he would be negligent, and he would be prosecuted.
>> The president's behavior,
the president's resort to repeated falsehoods,
is a function of the way he is approaching this crisis.
He's approaching this crisis about how it affects
his own political survivability and re-electability.
>> Uh, this is a list of, uh, the different countries.
United States is rated number one, most prepared.
>> I would equate it to something like seeing
a hurricane offshore that has just taken out a couple
of Caribbean islands and is strengthening to Category 5
as it heads for Florida, and not bothering to tell people
to get off the beach and board their windows.
And only starting to do that when you see the storm surge
coming ashore, by which point, it's, of course, far too late.
>> SMITH: The first COVID-19 death to be recognized
in America was on February 29, near Seattle.
It was followed by a cluster of cases in a nursing home.
But the big bomb would land on New York City.
From the suburb of New Rochelle, 20 miles north of the city,
an estate lawyer commuted daily by train
in to his office in midtown Manhattan.
In late February, he started feeling sick.
On February 27, he checked himself into
a New York Presbyterian hospital in Bronxville, New York.
Lawrence Garbuz tested positive on March 2.
>> The man in his 50s lives in Westchester,
but works in Manhattan.
>> New York City Health Department says
he is in severe condition.
Now, the entire family in quarantine.
>> SMITH: For Dr. Griffin, who had been seeing patients
with COVID-like symptoms since mid-February,
the Garbuz case confirmed what he had suspected all along.
>> This gentleman had not traveled,
so he had obviously acquired it in the New York area.
>> SMITH: Dr. Griffin had been pressing
for more testing for weeks. >> Mm-hmm.
>> SMITH: But because of a lack of testing capacity,
he says the CDC told him he could only test
Garbuz's immediate contacts.
So, our impression at this point, in the end of February,
beginning of March, is that we already had
community transmission of COVID-19 in the New York area.
But you're only letting us test people that have had contact
with this man.
We don't think he got it in New Rochelle.
We suspect he got it commuting to and from the city.
We would like to start testing all these people
with respiratory symptoms that we don't have a diagnosis for.
>> SMITH: What's their response?
>> We still have our rigid criteria.
Um, unless someone is really severely ill,
they need to have a direct contact or a travel history.
>> SMITH: And what's your response to them?
>> Our response is we think this gentleman got it
in the community.
We think there's community spread,
and we would like to do broader testing.
>> SMITH: But you're not allowed to.
>> We're not allowed to.
>> SMITH: Jessica Caro is a nurse who works
at a New York Presbyterian clinic.
>> We first heard the news of the lawyer from New Rochelle
getting sick, and that scared me, because I live,
like, maybe a ten-minute drive away from there.
>> SMITH: Her 16-year-old daughter Jianna
was the first one in her family to get sick.
>> She was complaining to me that she had a fever.
And, you know, nurse mom was just, like, throwing her
some Motrin and saying, you know,
"You'll be fine. You'll be fine."
And I finally got a thermometer on her.
I almost dropped it 'cause it was 105.
Not 100.5, it was 105.
>> SMITH: Wanting to get her daughter tested,
Jessica called New York's COVID hotline.
>> Thank you for calling the New York state COVID-19 hotline.
>> SMITH: Eventually, she got a live person on the line,
but it didn't help.
>> This man was like, "Has your daughter traveled to China?"
I'm like, "No."
He's like, "Well, has she had contact
with somebody that's positive?"
I'm like, "Well, we don't know."
And the last question was, "Is she short of breath?"
And I'm like, "Well, not currently,
but she's very sick."
And the man tells me, "Well, if she's not short of breath,
she doesn't qualify."
I remember hanging up the phone, and just, like,
I could feel the heat coming off of me, just how angry I was.
>> SMITH: There was a shortage of tests
Dr. Susan Butler-Wu runs a clinical microbiology lab
in Los Angeles.
>> Testing was very restricted.
You have to get approval from
your local public health authority in order
to be able to do that testing.
And they then have to coordinate with the CDC
to get approval to do the testing.
So it was a very arduous process.
>> SMITH: Because of shortages,
the CDC limited who qualified for a test.
>> At one point, the testing was limited to people
coming in from mainland China.
But viruses don't respect borders.
They don't respect anything like that,
and so I think we were always way behind because of that.
It wasn't probably until later in January, February,
that I really started to feel like even
if the public health labs were able to offer this testing,
it's just not sufficient.
We're not gonna be able to respond to something
of this magnitude.
>> SMITH: I've talked to a number of doctors,
and they say, "Look, if I couldn't tell them
that my patient had been to China,
they couldn't get a test."
>> Yeah, that's a decision that's made individually
by each health department, how they wanted to do that.
I will say that early on, in January and February,
the cases that were recognized in the United States
were largely linked to Wuhan, China,
and so those were the case criteria
as this new epidemic happened.
>> SMITH: By early March, the CDC allowed for more people
to get tests.
But shortages persisted, though not for celebrities.
>> Reports that Kevin Durant has been tested positive
for the coronavirus.
>> On social media, criticism for celebrities
who've been tested, like Celine Dion, Heidi Klum,
and reportedly Kris Jenner.
>> Whatever it may be, I'm gonna quarantine myself.
>> How are non-symptomatic professional athletes
getting tests while others are waiting in line?
>> SMITH: We see stars being able to be tested,
where people without means or without celebrity status
are unable to get tested.
>> Yeah. Unfortunately, a lot of issues with regard to inequity
in our society have really come out.
But I think that people get a little bit intolerant
when it's actually affecting the health of them,
their loved ones, their children when they realize that,
you know, you're concerned about your mother.
She can't get tested, but a VIP can get tested.
And I think that during a pandemic,
there's something quite wrong with-with that occurring.
>> Our response is among the very worst in the world.
Certainly among all the major countries.
>> SMITH: By the end of the first week in March,
there were 337 cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., and 17 deaths.
But cases were doubling every several days,
and only around 4,000 people had been tested.
When the president visited the CDC on March 6,
he flatly denied there was a shortage.
>> Anybody right now and yesterday...
anybody that needs a test gets a test.
They're there; they have the tests,
and the tests are beautiful.
>> SMITH: You know, March 6 is the date that you won't forget,
where the president came to the CDC.
He's wearing the hat, "Make America Great Again,"
and he states that everyone who wants a test can get a test.
Did he believe that do you think?
>> Again, I don't-- I'm not gonna comment
on what I think the president believed or didn't believe.
>> SMITH: Did you talk to him?
Did you say to him, "Look Mr. President, with all due respect,
it's not true what you're saying"?
>> Yeah, I'm not gonna comment on the conversations I've had
with the president.
>> If there's a doctor that wants to test,
if there's somebody coming off a ship,
they're all set, they have...
>> I remember watching that and thinking I'd like the ability
to test patients in my hospital on a much larger scale
than what I'm doing.
And I know I can't to that either.
So at the time, it didn't reflect the reality
of what I was experiencing as the clinical laboratory director
in a hospital.
Not at all.
>> And the tests are all perfect.
Like the letter was perfect, the transcription was perfect.
>> It was a made-for-TV event, um, and it was sound bites.
But the reality of the situation was quite different,
and I think most Americans knew that at the time.
>> SMITH: The president had to have known.
>> I would expect that he did.
>> SMITH: But even had there been enough tests,
the U.S. was facing a shortage of nasal swabs, masks,
and other equipment needed to carry out the tests.
And the president placed responsibility
on state and local authorities to acquire their own supplies.
>> Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment,
try getting it yourselves.
We will be backing you, but try getting it yourselves.
>> When he says things like the governors in the states
should be trying to look after their own needs
and get these things themselves,
what that means is there is no single picture
of what the country needs.
>> SMITH: You're on your own, boys and girls.
>> You're on your own, but we're also going to be buying up
all the supplies that we told you you need.
Every state is basically going on eBay
and bidding against all the others
and against the federal government to try and get
the basic supplies that they need.
>> SMITH: By March 11, there were 1,300 cases in the U.S.,
and 36 deaths.
It was then that President Trump decided to expand
his travel ban to European countries.
>> My fellow Americans,
to keep new cases from entering our shores,
we will be suspending all travel from Europe
to the United States for the next 30 days.
>> SMITH: The next day, Dr. Fauci testified before Congress
and admitted they were still failing to test adequately.
>> The system is not really geared
to what we need right now, what you are asking for.
That is a failing.
>> A failing? Yes.
>> Yeah, it is a failing.
Let's admit it.
>> He was spot on, and I'm glad he said it.
Somebody had to say it.
>> The way people in other countries are doing it,
we're not set up for that.
>> I concur with Dr. Fauci.
We've completely failed.
This is a, this is a massive failure.
At the end of the day, the whole way that health care
is set up in this country is the failure, too, right?
That every lab is fighting for itself,
every state is fighting for itself,
every city is fighting for itself.
I mean, that's not what you need in something like this.
>> Is it possible that your impulse to put a positive spin
on things may be giving Americans a false sense of hope?
>> No. I don't think so.
>> Misrepresenting preparedness right now?
>> I don't think so. No, I don't think so.
I think that, uh, I think it's got...
>> The not-yet approved drugs.
>> Such a lovely question.
>> What do you say to Americans who are scared, though, I guess?
Nearly 200 dead, 14,000 who are sick,
millions, as you witnessed, who are scared right now?
What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now
who are scared?
>> I-I say that you're a terrible reporter.
That's what I say.
I think it's a very nasty question,
and I think it's a very bad signal
that you're putting out to the American people.
The American people are looking for answers,
and they're looking for hope,
and you're doing sensationalism...
>> SMITH: By the end of March,
there were more than 5,500 deaths.
Jessica Caro, the clinic nurse,
was never able to get her daughter Jianna tested.
Fortunately, Jianna recovered.
But two weeks later, Jessica's aunt Amelia spiked a high fever
>> I get a phone call from my mom that my aunt is ill.
And that's when I started to get really scared,
because you kept hearing the hospitals filling up,
and now I'm like, "Wait, this is, this not good."
>> SMITH: Amelia was hospitalized,
but in the meantime, Jessica got another call.
It was her mother.
>> She said, "I have to tell you something,
I have a fever ."
And I said, "No, Mami, please, don't tell me that."
And she goes, "Yeah, I have a fever,
and I started coughing and I'm scared."
>> SMITH: Jessica's mother was hospitalized on April 7.
The next day, just down the hospital hallway,
her sister Amelia, Jessica's aunt, died.
By now, there were over 18,000 deaths
from coronavirus in America.
>> The one time that I spoke to her on the phone,
she was very out of breath.
Every word was labored, um, and so we, at that point,
were just conversing by text.
But then, I-I had texted her at some point in the evening,
and she hadn't answered me back.
And I, like, now started getting worried and next thing you know,
I get a text from her.
It was, like, garbled gibberish, and then it was,
"Call me, call me now."
And, um, the doctor was there and the doctor is telling me,
um, you know, "Unfortunately, at this point,
we need to intubate."
>> Okay, thank you. I appreciate it.
Thank you so much.
>> SMITH: Since visiting was prohibited,
Jessica could only reach her mother through FaceTime.
>> Hi, Mami. Hi, Mama, do you hear me?
In my heart, I know she was able to hear me,
but it was hard to see her like that.
I even promised her that when she got better,
I'd take her to her favorite place, which was the casino.
And, um, not being able to, um, be there and hold her hand
and let her hear my voice
has just been the worst of all of this.
Mama, I love you.
I love you so much.
You're so strong and you're fighting I know you are.
I need you to get better Mami, okay?
>> SMITH: After 16 days on a ventilator,
Jessica's mother Anne Martinez, passed away.
It happened on April 23.
It was her 80th birthday.
By then, over 50,000 Americans had died,
around 15,000 of them in New York state.
The bodies were stored in refrigerated trucks
next to the hospitals.
When we interviewed Dr. Ho on March 31,
he described New York this way.
>> New York is the new Wuhan right now.
There is tremendous carnage seen in all the hospitals
in this area.
It's like being hit by a tsunami of-of patients.
And they're not well-equipped to fight this.
>> SMITH: Who do you blame for this?
>> I blame the government.
I, honestly, I blame the government
for, um, not alerting us sooner that this was gonna be
an issue, not, um, consolidating a nationwide stockpile
and not putting people in charge of, uh, giving it
to who needs it in an orderly fashion.
Just being a citizen, not even being a health care professional
and watching the news, I can see
how just incompetent everything is.
>> SMITH: Jessica Caro's mother and aunt immigrated here
from the Dominican Republic.
Black and Latino communities have been the hardest hit.
>> Blacks and Latinos are grossly, disproportionately
killed by this virus.
>> SMITH: Cleavon Gilman is an emergency room doctor
at New York-Presbyterian.
>> That's just due to that a large majority of us
live in housing projects as well.
Uh, a lot of us are also essential workers, um, MTA,
officers, grocery clerks, um, and that's just taking a toll
on our whole community.
Across the city, the virus has been twice as deadly
for blacks and Latinos as whites,
and poverty is also a dangerous risk factor.
>> I think this crisis has unmasked
a tremendous vulnerability in America,
where 40, 50, 60% of American households
barely get by day-to-day, have lost faith
in the American dream for their children,
that their kids can do better than they can,
and-and now our society will have to grapple with
and deal with the reality that we can't just hide
and pretend that that's not the case anymore.
>> SMITH: Today, the total number of Americans
who have died is more than 115,000.
A Columbia University study has calculated
that had a stay-at-home order been imposed
at the end of February,
it would have prevented 83% of all U.S. deaths.
It's remarkable to me that in the Vietnam War,
I think 55,000 American soldiers died,
and we're now saying we might see
four times that many people die. >> Yep.
You know, 9/11, we lost 3,000 people,
and in response to that, the country built an infrastructure
for protecting against terrorist attacks
that costs an average of $150 to $250 billion a year.
We need to take this threat as seriously
as we take the threat of terrorism.
Um, it has the potential to kill at least as many,
if not considerably more, Americans,
and I hope, coming out of this,
whenever we do eventually come out of this,
we'll finally take seriously the importance
of health security and public health investments.
>> SMITH: Finally, there was the toll on health care workers.
In New York, scores of health care workers died of the virus.
New Yorkers tried to show their support.
Every day, thousands went to the streets
and to their windows to say thank you.
(air horn blowing)
(cheering, applause continue)
All the while, the number of bodies overwhelmed the city.
Trucks made their daily runs to a potter's field
where the poorest among us are laid to rest.
Worldwide, the virus has killed more than 430,000 people.
In the U.S., a nationwide lockdown has led
to the steepest drop in employment
since the Great Depression.
Now countries around the world are beginning to reopen.
Health care officials warn of a second wave.
>> Go to pbs.org/frontline
for more of our coverage of the pandemic.
>> (chanting): I can't breathe!
>> And listen to our podcast "Race, Police, and the Pandemic"
with historian Jelani Cobb.
>> From our educational system, our healthcare system,
like all these things that ultimately culminate
in the explosions that we've seen in the past week.
>> Connect with "Frontline" on Facebook and Twitter,
and watch anytime on the PBS Video app or pbs.org/frontline.
>> For more on this and other "Frontline" programs,
visit our website at pbs.org/frontline.
"Frontline: The Virus: What Went Wrong?"
is available on Amazon Prime Video.