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What Last Year's Government Simulation Predicted About Today's Pandemic


When asked yesterday about the government's preparedness for the COVID-19 19 outbreak, President Trump said this.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Nobody knew there'd be a pandemic or an epidemic of this proportion. Nobody's ever seen anything like this before.

CHANG: Actually, not quite. You see, people inside the federal government predicted last year that the U.S. would be underfunded, underprepared and too disorganized to deal with a global pandemic. They had conducted a simulation of a flu pandemic and discovered a whole host of problems, which have now been reported for the first time by The New York Times. One of the reporters on that story is national security correspondent David Sanger.


DAVID SANGER: Good to be with you, Ailsa.

CHANG: So this exercise, a simulation that you guys reported on, it was codenamed Crimson Contagion. Could you just briefly explain what it was?

SANGER: It was an effort to do a tabletop simulation of what would happen if there was an extremely severe flu pandemic that swept through the United States. And, actually, one of the early charts in the 70 or so pages of the draft report that came out of this, it showed that the pandemic would be the most severe that the U.S. has faced since the Spanish Flu in 1918. And it was based on questions of how prepared hospitals would be, how prepared different cities would be. And as you suggested in the introduction, it then pointed out all kinds of difficulties, all of which we've seen in recent weeks.

CHANG: Tell us about those difficulties, the parallels you're seeing today versus what they saw in the simulation.

SANGER: Well, first, a difference of opinion about when to close schools. We've certainly seen that. Second, an overwhelming number of hospitalizations. The simulation suggested that in the environment they imagined, there would be 110 million people roughly who came down with this, 7.7 million of whom would require hospitalization, and 586,000 would die. So that's a pretty stark number and then leads you to the next questions, are we ready to do 7.7 million hospitalizations?

CHANG: And what did the government learn back then? Yeah.

SANGER: Yeah. And, you know, what's interesting about this is this isn't just what was left over by the Obama administration, although they did leave both a study and a simulation for the Trump administration. This was done by President Trump's own Department of Health and Human Services in a special disaster and preparedness agency that's within HHS. What's interesting is the report as we got it was marked draft, sensitive, not for distribution. And we can't find any evidence that a final report ever came out. And they wouldn't answer that question. So it's very possible that the results were startling enough that they didn't really want to have a final report out there.

CHANG: But just to recap what you guys found in this simulation, the government realized that hospitals would be struggling to figure out what kind of equipment was stockpiled or would be available, cities and states were struggling to decide when to close schools. So just to be clear, this exercise showed that the Trump administration modeled a global pandemic and predicted many of the same problems that the U.S. is confronting now.

SANGER: That's absolutely right. And good credit to them that they were spending a lot of time modeling this. This was not a short simulation. It ran on and off between January and August. It focused on Chicago as a city that would be hit by it. Of course, Chicago has not been one of the biggest of the hotspots we've heard about lately, but it was an interesting model for these. And it laid out exactly the decision tree that the presidents had to go through.

So what does this tell you? Either that it didn't float up to the president - we know the National Security Council was involved in the simulation - or it tells you that it did float up, and it was the basis on which members of the Department of Health and Human Services and others were advising the president about the course that this would take. And that would have been back in January, around the time that he was saying we had five or so.

CHANG: Right. If I could just cut in. Now, you asked the White House about this currently. What did the White House say it did once it discovered all these problems that were revealed in the simulation - in the last 30 seconds we have left?

SANGER: Sure. They didn't say whether or not they had been briefed on it, but they did note that the - that there was a flu in that case and a virus in this case. And they said, well, that's very different - maybe that they're different diseases, but they had similar - very similar problems.

CHANG: All right. That is David Sanger of The New York Times.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

SANGER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.