Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign has frequently pointed to a 69-page “playbook” that the Obama-Biden administration created for dealing with pandemics, arguing that President Donald Trump had ignored it.
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany recently called the playbook “insufficient,” according to the Washington Examiner.
In fact, the playbook is less than advertised. Of the 69 pages, only 27 are the actual “playbook.” The first 13 pages are the table of contents, executive summary, and various title pages. The last 29 pages are appendices. And within the 27 pages of the “playbook” section, only 17 deal with an international outbreak of an infectious disease.
The introduction to those 17 pages explains:
This Rubric is not intended to serve as a comprehensive concept of operations or replace national or pre-existing U.S. Government response structures, but rather to serve as a proposed guide based on existing authorities, guidance, and response frameworks for staff monitoring emerging infectious disease threats and interagency planning and response, should the need arise in the future. This document is divided into two sections: key questions that provide the foundation for analytic work and key decisions and response options in accordance with the epidemiological rating.
This Rubric is not intended to supplant other existing guidance such as the U.S. Government international disaster response system, United States Government International Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Response (ICBRNR) Protocol [footnote omitted] and the United States Government Policy Framework for Responding to International Requests for Public Health and Medical Assistance during an Influenza Pandemic (PI Framework, see appendix B) [footnote omitted] or those of the World Health Organization and the Global Outbreak Alert & Response Network (GOARN). Users are encouraged to refer to these documents, as applicable.
Translated into English, what that means is that the document is a summary of documents that exist elsewhere. All the new playbook does is create a set of color-coded categories to define different stages of a pandemic and the different questions that might be asked at each stage, as well as the different agencies that might be asked to respond.
It is not clear what, if anything, the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force omitted that the playbook included. The document itself admits that it is not intended to replace existing plans — only to provide a new way of organizing them.
(President Trump had his own thoughts about organizing the federal government’s response, and they were expressed in the structure of the task force, which brought the expertise of several agencies together, with clear accountability at the top.)
Some of the steps the playbook suggests are quite obvious. For example, in a situation of “elevated threat,” defined as an “infectious disease outbreak with high mortality or morbidity,” the playbook recommends asking about borders and travel: “Can the cisease [sic] be effectively screened in travelers as a means to stop transmission?”
Curiously, a note adds: “It is rarely appropriate to put border screening measures in place at an elevated threat level.”
In a situation of “credible threat,” when a case may have been “imported to the U.S. regardless of evidence of community transmission” — roughly the situation the U.S. faced in late January with coronavirus — the playbook is ambivalent about restricting travel. “The issue of border screening is complex and requires extensive and operational consultations,” it advises.
The next level of threat occurs when the World Health Organization (WHO) declares a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” (PHEIC). That only happened on Jan. 30 with the coronavirus; President Trump imposed a travel ban on China the next day. Had he been following the playbook, he might not have imposed the travel ban: the playbook’s recommendation does not change as the threat level rises: “The issue of border screening is complex.”
Throughout the playbook, there is a glaring weakness: reliance on the WHO. In the cast of the coronavirus, the WHO advised as late as Jan. 14: “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in #Wuhan, #China.” The “playbook” refers to WHO several times; while it anticipates weaknesses in local and regional WHO leadership, it does not suspect the kind of failure at senior levels of WHO that caused the world to underestimate the threat of the virus.
There is some discussion — though not much — about supply chains, “diagnostic capacity,” and “contact tracing,” but hardly the emphasis that one might have expected, in retrospect, given the challenges posed by the coronavirus.
In one very important sense, the playbook anticipates the current crisis: it advises that “[t]he epidemiologic analysis and country context is likely to be dynamic and change. We recommend continuous reevaluation of the epidemiology to inform changes in US response options.”
In plain English: our knowledge of a new disease is likely to change, and policy changes will have to be made as our knowledge improves. That is exactly what has happened with COVID-19.
Later, in the section that deals with domestic pandemic outbreaks, the playbook reiterates the point: “Early in the emergence of an emerging infectious disease threat, either within or outside the United States, there will be more that is known than what is known. Decision-makers will choose courses of action with incomplete information.”
Thus while the Biden campaign has suggested otherwise, the playbook itself admits that there is no magical plan for containing pandemics, and that policymakers would have to learn and adjust over time — which Trump has done.
The appendices to the playbook include a list of government agencies and departments, and a few pages of charts showing how the color-coded threat levels would have applied to past pandemics, none of which reached the scale of coronavirus.
In at least two other respects, the playbook is indeed “insufficient,” as McEnany suggests: it downplays the use of travel bans, and emphasizes the role of the WHO. It is to President Trump’s credit that he chose a different path.
The Biden campaign places great store in the “playbook,” but never explains exactly how it would have made the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus any better. Arguably, it would have made the response worse.
If Joe Biden seriously believes that a document with a color-coded “rubric,” filled with bureaucratic jargon, is the answer to a pandemic threat like the coronavirus, perhaps Americans have new reasons to question his judgment.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News and the host of Breitbart News Sunday on Sirius XM Patriot on Sunday evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. PT). His new book, RED NOVEMBER, is available for pre-order. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.